“Daddy, Daddy! Can we go in, come on, can we? Please?!” Ritchie Taylor was the textbook definition of an exuberant child. Short, bowl-cut blonde hair, with wide saucer eyes that seemed to take in everything about the world, and most importantly an insatiable curiously. And like other little children, Ritchie seemed to have an innate talent for getting his way, especially when he had his heart set on something. And Ritchie Taylor didn’t just have his heart set on going into the haunted funhouse, it was the sole reason for his existence. So there was no way, no way, he was not going in.
“Fine,” his stepfather grunted in irritation. Won’t this kid ever shut up? he thought to himself as he had at least a dozen times today, one time becoming so ticked off that he’d cuffed the boy across the mouth to quiet him down. Little squirt deserved it too. The man spat with disgust. Jason James Fisher, or J.J. as he’d been known in his prison years, did not look like a particularly mean man or an abusive parent, but appearances were deceiving. If anything, his bespectacled, slightly tanned presence made him look like a professor or scholar, but the truth was, J.J. hadn’t even graduated the seventh grade, taking a milling job when his father was killed in the bed of another man’s wife. Anyone who spent a good deal of time with J.J. realized that beneath his “Father Knows Best” appearance lay something dark, something wrong. J.J. didn’t consider himself to be a bad stepparent, but sometimes kids just talked too much for their own good.
“Yeah!! All right, Daddy! Thank you so much! That is just so cool!” Little Ritchie’s face split into a wide grin.
J.J. did not share in his stepson’s delight, a bad hangover still grating on him. “Don’t you ever shut your mouth? Never give me a damn second of peace, boy. Now shut it or I’ll shut it for you.” He reached his hand back as if to emphasize, but Ritchie didn’t need a second warning. He fell silent. “And how many times have I told you, don’t call me Daddy. Call me J.J.”
Ritchie was too delighted with the prospect of the haunted funhouse to let the admonishment hurt him for long. The carnival attraction stood before them like a dark blight against a setting sun sky. Some of the paint was wearing off the structure, showing the plywood and nails beneath, but to Ritchie it was at the same time the singularly most frightening and most awe inspiring sight he had ever seen. Painted jet black, the weathered frame looked as if it could have been there for ages, though the carnival had only come to town last week. So real, Ritchie thought to himself.
* * * * *
“Two.” J.J. told the girl at the ticket booth, his eyes slowly undressing her, while cringing over the three dollar fee. That’d buy me half of a sixer, he thought bitterly. Money much better spent. But Karen, his nag of a wife, had told him to take young Ritchie to the carnival. Just because she was good friends with the owner, J.J. didn’t see why he had to be the one to go. But after all, it was Karen’s money, and as long as she was supporting him, J.J. had no problem doing little things for her and her son. He considered himself a very generous man.
“Are you J.J.?” the ticket girl asked.
“Yeah, what’s it to ya?” J.J. retorted sharply.
“Well, the owner said to let you in free for a private show.”
J.J. smiled. Maybe his luck was changing.
“I wish Mommy could see this.” Ritchie said, a slight glimmer of disappointment in his eyes, but it was quickly replaced with growing wonder as they approached the funhouse.
Little brat, always whinin’ for yer mama, J.J. thought silently. Grow up and quit bitchin’ like yer mom. JasJim this, JasJim that. And when she uses that stupid pet name… she’s practically begging for it, just like her little runt. Why can’t the kid just suck it up and be a man, like me? Despite what he wanted to say, there were people around so J.J. curbed his tongue and said only, “You know she had to work, Ritchie.”
As they entered the funhouse it looked more like a house of horrors, the sign bearing the name “Carnival of the Clowns”, scrawled in fake blood. They heard the doorman, a hunchback, shouting loudly, “Be wary of the clowns! Beware of the clowns! They’re killers!” J.J. resisted the urge to give him the name of a good chiropractor. The chuckling laughter followed even as they traversed deep into the dank depths of the haunted attraction.
It was pitch black, the only illumination coming from the few torches that hung from cobwebbed sconces lining the wall. The place smelled damp and earthen. Ritchie savored every second of it, taking in every sight, every sound, every smell, and loving it.
This stuff is so fake, J.J. thought bitterly to himself as they traversed deeper into the belly of the beast. Here and there he saw things: metal cages striped with pieces of supposed flesh, torture racks and iron maidens from the Middle Ages, that looked as if they had been bought from a surplus store. Who’s this stuff supposed to scare? J.J. continued his sour, never-ending rant against the world, but Ritchie seemed genuinely entertained. They soon entered a maze of mirrors, those funhouse staples, with their wacky reflections, some big and tall, some twisted and some small. Ritchie was currently engrossed with staring at just how he would look if he was seven feet tall with arms the length of an chimpanzee. What a baby, J.J. thought with disdain. You’d never see me hoppin’ around like a stupid ape. Ritchie turned and looked at his stepfather with a look of wonder on his face, and for a moment J.J. was almost taken aback. Below Ritchie’s left eye was the beginnings of purple-black bruise. When the hell’d that happen? But then J.J. remembered, as they continued on, and his heart once again grew cold. Oh yeah, that’s right. My magazines. The good ones. Stupid boy, thinkin’ that he can go round knockin’ my stuff down and not get his punishment. Gotta learn about the real world sooner or later. J.J. was a strong subscriber to the belief that telling yourself a lie enough times somehow made it true. Ritchie was saying something but J.J. hadn’t been listening.
“Huh?” he asked, the prospect of being home with a cold one bitterly mocking.
“I said, Daddy, where are we?” For the first time since they’d entered the funhouse J.J. noticed an emotion on Ritchie that wasn’t excitement or joy. It was fear.
“We’re right…” He looked left and saw only a vacant hall stretching off into nothingness, and to his right, the same, the distortion of the mirrors making it impossible to tell the real exit from the millions of fake ones. “You know, I really don’t know.” J.J. had been too engrossed with thoughts of cold beers to have paid much attention to where he was going, the three brewskies he had downed earlier doing little to aid his short term memory. A faint tremor of fear, quickly to be erased, because to J.J. that was an emotion reserved for children, and he replaced it with anger at his stepson who had been so stupid as to get them lost in a haunted funhouse with no directions whatsoever. J.J. reared back, ready to belt Ritchie one when a powerful voice split the oppressive silence.
“You touch him, you die,” the voice was frothing with rage, yet somehow sounded familiar.
“Oh, yeah?” J.J. turned, his hatred temporarily displacing from the boy onto whatever had the audacity to interrupt him. He glanced around, seeing nothing but his own reflection refracted a hundred different ways, from fat to skinny, short to shorter. Angered with nothing to lash out at, he became even more enraged. “Why don’t you show yourself, if you got the stones, and we’ll see just who’s gonna die?!”
Suddenly, like a ghost, a clown stepped from the shadows. But in reality, it looked like a thousand clowns stepping forth in suits of red, white stripes running down one side, and a patch blue stars across the chest. “Okay. Here I am. Why don’t you say that to my face?” The clown looked small, only 5’5″ or so, nearly half a foot shorter than J.J., making his confidence soar. Seeing this slight figure, J.J. smiled. It was always so much easier to pick on those smaller than yourself. Still, something looked oddly familiar in the clown’s eyes, something knowing.
“You think I’m scared of you?! You’ll get yours right now!” J.J. charged forward, a head-long bull rush from his younger days of back alley football. He stopped dead in his tracks after ten paces when he saw the clown pull out a very real looking knife. The blade was at least six inches long and looked incredibly sharp.
Instantly, J.J. turned and ran, fleeing from this obviously psychotic monster, pushing right past Ritchie as he went by. The frightened boy was quick on his heels, needing to get away. The clown was just behind him, its wrath seemingly focused on J.J. Soon, the hunted pair found themselves lost in the huge hall of mirrors, unable to get out, the white face and cold blue eyes of the approaching killer clown just steps behind.
J.J. and Ritchie ran with all their might, ducking and dodging behind the mirrors, everywhere they turned, seeing that grinning painted face. Suddenly, Ritchie was thrown to the ground, J.J.’s foot sending the young child sprawling, thinking that a small sacrifice could give him the time he needed to get out of there. Ritchie, infinitely hurt by his stepfather’s actions, could scarcely move, hatred and sadness burning in those sweet innocent eyes. Still the clown crept closer, seeming to be everywhere, in every mirror, in every reflection, all around. Finally, Ritchie forced his unwilling legs to move, getting up and taking off once again. The clown was definitely closer now; he could feel it. Ritchie painfully watched as J.J. ducked into a niche between two mirrors, abandoning his stepson, leaving him to the clutches of the clown.
Hoping that there had been some mistake, that his stepfather would somehow protect him, Ritchie ran to where J.J. crouched. The boy would have had better luck hoping for the world to stand still. “What are you doing, you idiot?!” J.J. was frantic with panic, nearly screaming at his crying charge. “You fool, now we’re both dead.” Almost as if summoned by his words, the mirror behind the pair shattered and there stood the chalk-white ghost face of the clown. In one swift motion the knife came down, slashing J.J., dropping him to the ground, where he lay clutching his bleeding side and crying. Ritchie was petrified, unable to move, unable to even scream for help.
The clown hovered atop them both, a thin runnel of blood already seeping from J.J.’s wound, and seemed to smile sadly, “Last chance at redemption, JasJim.” J.J. looked up at the crystalline blue eyes in wonder and terror. How did this monster, this thing know his wife’s pet name for him? Was this clown really a ghost? Something worse? There was no tremor of fear in the clown’s voice when it asked, “You or the boy? One lives, one dies. Your choice.”
J.J. didn’t hesitate. “The boy.” The clown reached down and grabbed Ritchie’s hand, pushing him towards the emergency exit.
“No,” J.J. screamed, seeing his chance of survival running out the funhouse door. “I meant kill the boy.”
The clown reached up and with a fury that rivaled hell’s own, struck fiercely, plunging the knife blade deep into J.J’s chest. “Wrong answer!” The clown screamed again and again, angry cries mixed with tears of sorrow.
As J.J. faded away, he could hear something faint, but something that made him angry, angry at himself, angry at his wife, and most of all angry at Ritchie. But none of that mattered now. It was all over now, at least for him. As the clown walked towards the exit, wiping away the thick pancake makeup and taking off the clown suit, realization struck. The last thing J.J. heard was that familiar voice saying, “Ritchie, everything’s going to be okay now. Mommy’s here.”