The clown stood a few paces from the store front’s window, just beside a bench table topped with vases and glassware and a bicycle built-for-two. The window was encrusted with dust. The shop shrouded in darkness, closed until Tuesday, according to the hours posted.
Stepping into the shade of the shop to get out of the sun, a woman noticed a pair of glass figurine dancers on the table, and then, the bicycle-built-for-two. Peering closer, she startled at the clown, mistaken him for a person. Laughing at herself, she looked over her shoulder, relieved no one was there to see her foolishness. He looked real enough, she thought. Looking back, she felt almost as if he was laughing at her. She heard laughing like a taped laugh track of a bad 90s sitcom over her own laughter. It sounded like the laughter of everyone who had ever laughed at her.

She turned away and rummaged through her purse for cigarettes, something she found herself doing at least twice a week even though she quit smoking 23 months ago. Her hands marauded the bottom of her bag, searching them out like tiny little ghost limbs. She walked to the curb and looked down the street for the bus, but nothing was there.

“Wonder what people do for fun around here,” she asked no-one as she looked down the row of boarded up shops, all of them unidentifiable except a hardware store, a saloon whose bold, white letters over the shuttered window simply read ‘SALOON,’ and the antique store.

Across the street stood a small movie theatre advertising Kangaroo Jack and The Devil Wears Prada. Closed indefinitely due to PANDEMIC was scrawled in black Sharpie on a piece of paper taped to the ticket box. She doubted the theatre had been packed even before the pandemic. Then again, what were the alternatives?

She checked the time on her phone and the directions her sister had given her with no way of knowing what time the bus would come. Still angry at herself for letting herself be spooked by a silly clown, she felt a lump in her throat and wished she had a glass on water or an ice cold can of soda. She searched her purse for a piece of gum, but all she found was a cough drop. Good enough. She unwrapped it, put it in her mouth, and noticed the clown again.

He was standing slightly forward, one hand on his hip, the other stretched out before him, his fingers and thumb curved out as if holding a bottle or glass, as if mocking her, smiling. She looked closer. Nothing in his hand, but she was sure he had been laughing before. Both hands on his hips, his head and back arched back slightly. Ridiculous. It couldn’t be. Some mime’s kicks in a little no name town?

She shaded her eyes with her hand and leaned into the window. His eyes were black, empty, matte. She could hear her mother chiding her over active imagination. She shook her head and walked back to the curb to look for the bus.

Down the street, she saw a little black square. She watched it grow bigger, form into the image of a bus. Relieved, she threw her wrapper in her purse and counted out her bus fare. As the bus pulled up and opened its doors, she gave a last look over her shoulder. She couldn’t see the clown.

The bus was almost as empty as the street. An older man with white hair whittled something, leaving a small pile of wood chips on the floor in front of him. An old woman with a scarf tied over her head and several shopping bags sat a few seats up from him; and way in back, the woman was surprised to see a teenaged girl happily plugged into her earbuds. The woman chose the seat behind the old woman who reminded her of her grandmother and wondered what it must be like for the girl to grow up in a town so small and quiet.

The bus drove over a small bridge that crossed the river, and turned into a stretch of long, winding roads with little houses clustered together here and there like crooked teeth. There were no traffic lights and even less traffic.

After a few blocks, the bus driver put his hand to his throat, looked at the old woman through the rear-view mirror and made a loud, phlegmy, gasping noise. The old woman cried out. The woman was about to run to the driver’s aid, sure they were about to crash and die, when he started laughing. The old woman shook her head and dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief. Confused, the woman looked at the driver through the read view mirror, but his eyes were back on the road and he was fine.

This happened every few miles. The woman looked around at the other people on the bus, but no one seemed at all bothered except the old woman who softly wailed and dipped her head into her handkerchief each time. The man whittled, the girl nodded along to her music, and the bus chugged along.

Finally, when the bus came to the 2 pump gas station alongside the green barn where the woman was supposed to get off, she pulled the call chord and walked to the front of the bus. As the bus pulled to the side of the road, she couldn’t help asking.

“Sir, I noticed you’ve been making strange sounds that seem to be upsetting that old lady, is everything ok?”

“Oh yeah,” the driver chuckled. “Her son hanged himself last month. I just like to razz her, keep her old heart pumping.” His chuckle turned into a full roiling laugh as he turned to the woman. His face white, his round nose red, his make up bright, and his mouth wide open as the still sun-lit sky.

His gloved hand pulled the door release as the woman nearly tumbled off the bus and ran down the street. The roiling laughter echoed from everywhere around her.

10 Comments

  1. Len Kuntz

    Emily,

    You’ve written a real creeper here. Who isn’t afraid of clowns?

    I like how you set the tone right away with strange imagery, a sense of desolation, the woman’s uncertainty of things. We know at once that we’re in for an interesting and unusual ride, both metaphorically and literally.

    I loved a lot of the descriptive details you employed like this one–little houses clustered together here and there like crooked teeth.

    And that ending is a cruel jolt, though in all the right ways.

    Great job. It’s fun to be reading your writing again.

    One thing you could consider is stripping away any excess in order to keep the tension zipping along.

    Len

  2. Trent

    Emily,

    dig some of the phrases here – the alluded laugh track, and marauding through a purse.

    Makes me wonder about the store, plus the bus passengers who seem oblivious – as though they’re in on

    the whole thing, somehow. Or, they’re an extrapolation, of some kind…

    Thanks for calling up some vintage imagery – I’d like to think the theater is an old
    school kind of movie palace.

  3. Kathryn Kulpa

    This is creepy on many different levels, beyond the clown. I’m especially fascinated by the “closed for pandemic” movie theater that is showing 90s movies–almost as if the town is in some kind of weird time warp. You also mention 90s sitcoms early on, which sets that up. Or maybe we’re in some hellish afterlife? The driver’s sadistic behavior is truly disturbing.

    One thing to consider: maybe give the protagonist a name, because I found it ‘the woman’ a little confusing when other characters were ‘the old woman’ and ‘the girl.’

  4. Meg Tuite

    Hi Emily,
    WOW! This is creepy visceral! Your details are phenomenal! And the tension is there at every moment of this. I kept waiting for the next weirdness to slam me. And it did. That ending is killer. I do think this could be tightened up, as well, to ratchet the tension even further. And yes, to giving ‘the woman’ a name. Absolutely exceptional! The clown from HELL! LOVE!

  5. Sara Comito

    Hi Emily! Such a creepy ride. I like that it isn’t really about a clown, but about a town. You set up a great vibe of displacement and weirdness. And then the bus driver – so cruel. And such behavior seems as though it’s just business as usual in this strange place. I like the suggestions others have made. I wonder about the omniscience of the narrator and if there would be a way to display the woman’s inner world more through her physical description and reactions as seen from outside. It could add a meta layer of weirdness, more closely observing the woman observe this world. Great draft!

  6. AJ Miller

    Emily, I love the element of surprise I felt as all the pieces fell into place. I thought you did a great job circling back to the clown and showing its relevance. I liked how ordinary the day seemed and how you built upon this. Very creepy bus driver who can determine and then use his riders fears and grief and probably any emotion to haunt them on their ride across town. This would be terrifying and I felt that from the story. I loved your details but I also think there’s some spots worth tightening to heighten the tension of the piece, as others have noted. Really great little horror piece. And clowns, yes, are terrifying! Immediate creepy for me.

  7. Aimee Parkison

    Emily,

    This is truly horrific!!! Right away, you captured me with the setting, which is eerie in its detail—the storefront windows, the dust, the darkness, the bicycle built for two, wonderful foreshadowing. The clown evokes a sort of primal fear, that face hidden behind the mask of makeup, that idea of a frozen smile, smiling when we don’t yet know what is funny. A joke that we’re not in on is sinister, and you capture the tension of that so well in your foreshadowing of the ending by using the clown to taunt the reader and the protagonist.

    You do this brilliant thing where you mix the comic with the horrific in a play manner. The title sets the stage for this tonal play between the comic and the terrifying.

    Throughout, your use of foreshadowing and slow build of rising action is masterful. The reader knows something is wrong, but doesn’t know what. This hooks us into the story, so that we read knowing something dangerous or dreadful lurks, though the dark humor keeps us guessing. The dark humor is artfully personified in the clown.

    Moving from the closed-up shops and theater to the claustrophobia and strangeness of the bus is a fine way to continue to engage the reader while the action rises.

    The climax and resolution are truly horrifying, disturbing, and strangely sickening in just the way powerful psychological horror should be. I really admire how you’re able to do such a reveal at the ending. It’s hard to pull off a reveal like this because so much tension has built that it is often difficult for a horror writer to “pay off” the reader’s expectations with a satisfying ending. You’ve done it in your story! As a horror fan, I enjoyed the story so much, especially the ending. It kept me unsettled, guessing. As a reader of literary fiction, I also admire your writing for its style.

    I enjoyed the story as is, but if you want to keep building on it, you might weave in a bit of backstory interiority about the protagonist’s history, something slightly disturbing connecting to and further foreshadowing what is to come.

    Also, you might consider sending this to a literary magazine that publishes slipstream or literary horror. I suggest The Dark, Hobart, or Trampset.

    The ending really did scare me. Thanks for the wild, unsettling ride!

    Best, Aimee

  8. Lucy Logsdon

    Hi Emily–good to see you here:) I just love this piece—especially because I did not see the end coming. I kept thinking ok we are talking about clowns, so I had better be on guard for the creepy creeper clown, but then I got sidetracked by the bus narrative, and then boom there was the creepy, freaky clown and I didn’t even see it coming. I love how it is so horrific, yet never really leaves the realm of the plausible which makes it even more scary for me. I guess I too see how the ending could be tightened–but it’s already so strong—rework it to make it totally pop, and wow you will have a killer piece. I love pieces that surprise me, that arrive unexpectedly and this one certainly did that!

  9. David O'Connor

    Emilly, I love the first line, really sets the tone and has great sounds and rhythms. Also throughout, your description is full of creep. I can feel the terror and horror hiding under the surface ready to jump out and wreak havoc. well done, well-built, some true gothic horror here.

  10. Gloria Garfunkel

    Emily, I love the sense of suspense that pervades the entire piece, her nervousness about being nervous about the clown, showing it by looking for cigarettes in her purse that she quit smoking 23 months ago. You do suspense really well. I love that in the end the bus driver not only admits to deliberately sadistically scaring the old lady, thinking he is very funny about the horror in her life, but it turns out is the very clown that was haunting her before the ride. The laughter that follows her at the end is the perfect icing on this extremely creepy cake. I like the way you were able to stay in her head throughout the growing horror. Great writing!

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