Chuck Wendig is doing something really cool with his Flash Fiction Challenges in October. Basically, it’s an experiment in collaborative writing. One person starts a scary story by writing Act I (last week). A second person picks it up and writes Act II (this week) and next week a third person will write Act III. I picked up a frightening clown story started by Pavowski. I’ve copied his text here for simplified reading, but make sure you check out his site–it’s pretty cool. My new text starts immediately after his. (He also extended the story that I started last week. You can read that one here).
A Laughing Matter
(Part I–by Pavowski)
Scowling through the mirror at Earl is a face as twisted as the ones in his nightmares.
One hand tightens on the brown bottle, the other on the glass. The cubes swirl and clink as he pours a drink too many and tosses it back.
“You’re just not making them laugh like you used to, big guy.” Max had given him a sorry grin, like a dog who’s eaten your dinner but who knows you’re not going to do a damned thing about it. “Nothing personal.”
And just like that, here he is, cleaning his crap out of the dressing room for the last time. Over the monitor, Earl can hear the trite jokes from some new kid on the circuit — name of Zamir, of all things, riffing on his foreign parents — to what sounds like an ocean of raucous laughter.
A sound Earl’s only ever from backstage; never in person.
The glass flies from his hand and shatters the mirror, and now it’s not a single scowling mask that looks back at him, but a dozen. Earl stares himself down for a good, hard minute, then grabs his jacket, frayed elbows and all, and beats it.
There’s a storm rolling in. The first fat drops are just starting to fall, but the real action’s a long way off, yet. A couple of drunks are hanging out, grinning at each other in that half-lidded, glassy-eyed way that you only see at one in the morning outside a comedy club. One of them recognizes Earl, and it begins.
“Hey, it’s the comedian.”
Earl knows what’s coming. He pulls up his collar and tries to walk by, but the guy’s in front of him, a hand on his chest, fruity, watered-down vodka on his breath. “You weren’t funny.”
“Sorry you didn’t like it.” Earl sighs. Tries to be contrite. “Look, talk to Max. Tell him Earl said to give you a few free passes for next week.” Max will never give this guy anything, but vodka breath doesn’t know that.
“What, so we can hear more lame jokes about your mother-in-law?”
Vodka-breath’s buddy thinks this is really funny. He bursts out in a laugh that sounds like a choking horse. Again, the sound of laughter that isn’t for him burns away at Earl worse than the bourbon burning through his guts.
Everybody thinks they know what funny is, but they don’t, not really. They don’t laugh at Earl’s jokes. But they’ll laugh at their idiot friends making fun of Earl’s jokes, sure, no problem.
Earl stares at horse-laugh long enough for it to get real uncomfortable. “You think that’s funny? How about a knife in your spleen, think that’d be funny?”
A low rumble of thunder punctuates this, and the drunks back away real slow, watching Earl like he’s rabid.
“Thought not,” Earl mutters, and shoves his way past, making sure to give vodka-breath an elbow to the gut as he goes.
Then a bottle hits him in the back of the head, and everything goes dark to the sound of shattering glass.
Earl comes to — he’s not sure how much later — choking on the rainwater that’s puddling around him. His head hurts like hell; he rubs at it and his hand comes away hot and bloody. Lightning lights up the deluge that’s falling now, and the thunder rattles his skull.
The club is dark. Max. Probably saw Earl lying there when he left and didn’t do a damned thing to help him.
It’s the last straw.
Blue-lipped and shivering, Earl almost knocks the door to his cramped, moldy apartment off its hinges. He brushes past a sink full of dishes and a table covered with slowly decomposing takeout Chinese and makes for the bathroom.
It’s no mistake that his bathroom is set up like a green room; the apartment may be a shithole, but this is a shrine. His shaving kit, immaculately laid out by the sink. A couple of freshly-pressed towels hung on the rack. The bright lights overhead make him blink when he turns them on. Worn, curling pictures and newspaper clippings — over a dozen of each — are sandwiched between the frame and the mirror. Earl catches glimpses of himself in between as he looks back and forth. His father, his uncles, grandfathers and greats.
Down one side, he sees Samuel, the foppish Auguste in a frilled collar and big red nose. Randolph, a simple Whiteface in an oversized suit with white gloves. Freddy, the bumbling Tramp with a chewed-up derby and stippled-on stubble. All grinning in that carefree, gleeful way that clowns have, like even behind all the paint and the makeup and the oversized shoes, they find the whole world funny.
You could say it’s a family business. One that Earl’s tried to avoid. “Cheap laughs,” he always called it. But clowning is in his blood, he knows that, now, as he sees his eyes reflected in the pale masks.
But the other side of the mirror is in his blood, too. Tri-Cities Terror. Seaside Strangler. The Knife in the Night. They’re Earl’s family, too, and their mugshots stare back at him with the same clownish grin as the others, minus the makeup.
If psychology were a thing Earl’s family ever bothered with, they might have made something of the checkered legacy he has inherited. All Earl knows as the storm pounds on the windows is that he tried, he really did. He only wanted to kill them with laughter.
Now, he thinks as he reaches for the greasepaint, he’s just going to kill them.
(Part II–by me)
Dave slowly rose from the driver’s side and gingerly walked to the backseat. Taking a deep breath, he used his right hand to steady himself on the roof of his Toyota as he leaned down to grab the briefcase with his left. Why did he let Nick talk him into vodka? Vodka always gave him the worst hangovers. Even two days later, he was still caught in its grip.
One foot in front of the other.
At five minutes past eight, the elevator finally opened to the sea of cubicles on the twenty-sixth floor. How many deadbeats did his team have to call today before they could go home? He hoped it would be less than 10,000—a light day. There are a lot of deadbeats out there.
Nick, seemingly having made a full recovery, stood with Joe, Randal and Gene by the coffee maker. Why weren’t they on the phones? Ugh; its going to be a long day.
“Hey, champ!” Nick gave him his answer and they all laughed. How can he be joking? For all they knew, that guy died in the street. The cops could come drag them both out of here at any second.
“Man Dave, I wish I would have stayed to see you lay out that loser,” said Joe. “He was a drag, man.”
Dave opened his mouth to respond but Nick beat him to it: “Damn right you should have stayed. But you had to be a pussy and go home early.” Nick punched Joe’s arm as he spoke.
Dave’s brow furrowed and he wiped his forehead with his palm. “Nah, man. I shouldn’t have hit him like that. He was wasted. It was a shit move.”
The four of them stood silent for half a second before Nick broke in. “Whatever, man. He elbowed you first.” Nick put his arm around Dave’s shoulder. “All I know is that you’re going to be one hell of a father. No one’s gonna be able to step to your family and get a away with it.” They started walking across the room to Dave’s cube. “Congrats again on kiddo number one. When is Jeannie due again?”
“Not for five months,” Dave said, happy to be talking about anything else.
“To bad she can’t drink. Anna and I wanted to see if you guys would go back to A Laughing Matter with us this Friday. It’s going to be Zamir’s first headline and that dude is funny,” Nick said stopping in front of Dave’s cube.
“I don’t know man. What if that guy is there again? It could be trouble.”
“Yeah, trouble for him. Besides, isn’t Jeannie like a special forces badass or something?” Nick asked.
“Something like that. She wasn’t technically in special operations but she did all of the same training and missions. Something about women not technically being part of combat units. But, yeah, I’ll see what she says.”
“Cranberry juice and sprite?” the waiter said it too loud, announcing the non-drinker to everyone in the cozy venue. Hesitantly, Jeannie raised her hand.
“You’re absolutely radiant,” Anna said as she reached for her own glass. “I’m so happy for you both.”
“Thanks,” Jeannie answered as she clank her glass first against Anna’s and then Nick’s. “And thanks for calling to invite us out. This should be good.”
The lights dimmed as the MC stepped out onto the apron and into the spotlight. “Hi, everyone. And welcome to A Laughing Matter. I’m Max, the owner of this little dive.”
A commotion backstage, the banging of heavy equipment, briefly interrupted Max’s intro. But he quickly recovered and continued with the warm-up, apparently unconcerned. “And tonight I have the pleasure of introducing a first time headliner that is sure to get a laugh. He promises it will be a completely new Halloween show like unlike anything you’ve seen before. Without further ado, please put your hands together for Zany Zamir!”
Max quickly stepped back into the right wing as the main curtain began to open. The audience gasped as it revealed Zamir slowly turning in the air, an orange cord connecting his neck to the lighting truss above. His face was plump and purple, eyes bulging out, unblinking.
“Damn. That’s one hell of a makeup job,” observed Nick as the audience shifted uncomfortably in their chairs. A second or two later, Max came flying into view from stage right, similarly strung up to the truss. Max was grabbing at the orange cord with both hands as his legs flailed wildly beneath him. Nick chuckled when Max slammed into Zamir like some sort of morbid pendulum.
“This isn’t funny. I’m out of here,” Jeannie said already making her way to the exit.
By the time they reached the back of the club, Max had stopped struggling and a loud comfortableness had spread throughout the crowd. Jeannie pushed against the door but it didn’t budge. She stepped into it and pushed harder. Nothing. Nick pushed her to the side and tried the door again. Still nothing.
They turned back to the stage to see a terrifying clown—white face and red nose, wearing a prison jump suit—walking to the mic. One hand held a submachine gun while the other hand was raised to his face, index finger extended in front of a huge, fang-filled smile.
“Ehem. Mic check. One, two.” He slapped the mic with his free hand. “Now, now. Dont’ cry. Please have a seat. Zamir asked me to stand in for him tonight. Evidently, he’s tied up.”
Nick and Dave looked at each other and simultaneously threw their shoulders into the door. It still didn’t budge.
“What’s the hurry back there? The show’s just getting started.” The clown held his free hand up as a visor and looked across the audience to the exit door. “Well, well. This really is my lucky night. If it isn’t vodka-breath and horse-laugh. Come on up here you two. This routine calls for…audience participation.”