Shirley worked part-time at a co-op gallery owned by a group of artists. Her friend, Denise, was one of them. Each artist had to tend the shop for a certain number of days a month, and Denise paid Shirley to do this for her. Denise did this to help Shirley financially, but also so she could spend more time creating her art. Single, Denise had inherited quite a sum upon her grandmother’s passing and could afford to do what she wanted.
Shirley and Denise had met in high school and had remained friends, although each had chosen a different pathway. Shirley, a family, and a home; Denise, a career and an art studio. They were both storytellers; Denise through her art and Shirley at bedtime with her daughter, Darcy. Shirley found Denise’s art fascinating, although some of the more macabre items were not to her liking. Her husband, Norman, found Denise’s creations disturbing and so avoided her studio and the gallery altogether. However young, precocious, Darcy seemed drawn to Denise’s creations, even the bizarre, darker subjects. When she would accompany her mother to visit Denise, hand-holding was always a necessity to prevent curious touching.
Frequently using things she found at flea markets and antique stores in her mixed media art, Denise convinced Shirley to go with her to the antique mall that weekend. It was Sunday afternoon and Norman had taken Darcy with him on his errands, Shirley appreciating that they needed time together without mom. Denise had called her up on the spur of the moment and suggested that they go on an antiquing adventure. Shirley attempted to make up excuses, but Denise would not take no as an answer. Shirley liked the antiques; it was the musty smell and fine layer of dust that seemed to coat everything that was off-putting. Sometimes, the weirder items made her anxious, stimulating her imagination, and creepy ideas floated into her head. Shirley had considered writing the strange stories that seemed to find her. Maybe one day, when Darcy was older. So, to humor her friend, get out of cleaning her house, and potentially have another tale to tell, Shirley gave in and Denise came to pick her up.
They had already been in several stores and Shirley was toting the bag of pretty, brightly colored silk flowers that she had found for next to nothing in a nearby shop. The two women had stopped in front of the next store on the block. Taped to the front of the door was a sign. Marked in dark ink and large letters were BIG SALE/HUGE DISCOUNTS with All Sales Final in smaller lettering below it. Rain damage and the heart attack and death of the former owner had caused the business to be closed for some time. Denise was eager to see any renovation and what was inside. She had also seen a menagerie horse in the display window and wanted to investigate this painted pony further. Denise told Shirley that she was thinking of doing a carnival-inspired installation for her next show at the gallery. “I’m sure that Darcy will dig it! She loves carnivals. Remember that time when we took her there? Does she still have that miniature set I made?”
Shirley nodded her head yes. “Of course.”
“Maybe you’ll see something for her in here.” Denise opened the door and stepped inside.
Shirley, not a big fan of circuses or carnivals, didn’t reply but half-heartedly followed her in.
As Denise made a beeline for the carousel animal, Shirley lingered at the front of the store. She perused the jewelry in the glass case nearby and then greeted the middle-aged woman who was sitting behind it knitting.
“Are you looking for anything special?” the woman inquired as she looked up from her task.
“No. Just browsing. I’m here with my friend.” Shirley nodded her head towards Denise. “She’s the antique lover.”
The woman looked over at Denise, who had lost interest in the horse and was meandering further into the store. “I see.”
“So, are you the new owner?”
“No, just a renter, kinda. The wife of the former owner said that if I cleaned it up, I could use it for free for a time. Most of this stuff was my dad’s. He used to co-own a traveling carnival. His partner, my uncle, passed away about five years ago. They had inherited the business from my grandfather after the accident…” The woman paused briefly, as if considering whether to pursue this line of thought, and then shifted, “My uncle never married nor had kids, so he left everything to my dad. Then my mom died and dad fell ill. We want to sell these things, as we don’t have the room to store them or the energy to maintain them. I told him it was better to get rid of it. My son helped me fix the place up and then moved his grandpa’s things in here.” With a wry face, she added, “Plus, we need the money to pay his bills, you know, with medical and all…”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” Shirley replied kindly. Not knowing what else to say, she added, “I hope your father gets better soon.”
“Thanks.” Then the lady’s brow furrowed a little, and she added hastily as if she slightly regretted relaying such personal and unsolicited information, “Well, if you have questions or want me to open any of the cases, just ask.” She returned to her former activity of knitting stitches.
Shirley wanted to inquire about details of the accident the woman had referred to earlier but refrained. Feeling bad for the woman and her dad, she decided she should purchase something to help them out. As she looked around at the old carnival stuff, she wondered what she might find that she would like enough to take home. She walked towards the back of the shop to her pal, rummaging around in a box of old clothes.
Denise held up an old, tall, plumed, and sequined hat; the type that the circus girls on prancing horses would wear. “Look at this! It’s giving me all kinds of great ideas!”
Vintage clothing freaked Shirley out because she always wondered who had worn it. Trying to feign interest, she replied, “Yeah, cool.” Then, in hushed tones, she repeated what the shopkeeper had said to Denise.
Her companion reaffirmed Shirley’s sentiments. “I agree. We need to buy something. I really like the carousel horse but it’s expensive and needs some repair. Let’s keep looking.” She put the hat down and steered Shirley towards more stuff in the back. As Denise became fixated on some uninteresting trinkets on a shelf, Shirley continued to wind her way through the shelving.
She stopped when she spotted a small toy made of tin; the old, colored exterior chipped in places and partially blackened on the left side. A clown, it had eerie eyes and a mischievous grin, sitting on a circus cart. His costume was striped pants and shirt with a polka-dot bow at his neck. A small, blue jester’s hat with a red star in front perched on his head at a jaunty angle. The cart had two large back wheels with faded yellow elephants painted on them and one small wheel in front. A grim driver, the clown with the unsettling face, grasped the steering wheel attached to the small wheel. Fascinated by its disturbing appearance, Shirley wondered if the old-fangled toy had formerly belonged to some circus kid. It appeared to be from a long-ago, bygone era.
Denise had joined her and followed her gaze to the clown. “Wow!” Much to Shirley’s chagrin, Denise picked up the toy and turned it over. “Look, it’s mechanical!” She carried the toy over to a nearby table as she wound the mechanism. Setting it down on the table, she let it go. Clack, clack, clack. It rolled bumpily across the roughhewn table’s surface.
When it stopped, Denise picked it up and wound it again. “Neat, don’t you think so?” She put it down again. Clack, clack, clack.
“I don’t like it. It’s creepy,” Shirley replied. As the words came out of her mouth, the clown toy abruptly changed direction and headed straight for her. It stopped just short of the table’s edge in front of her.
Her mouth agape, Shirley automatically stepped backward. “Did you see that?!” she asked throatily. “It turned toward me.”
Denise laughed. “That’s absurd.”
“It didn’t like what I said.”
Amused by Shirley’s apprehension of the toy, Denise snorted. “Don’t be ridiculous! Your writer’s imagination runs amok again. It just hit a ridge on the table and that made it turn.” She picked up the toy, wound it, and placed it on the table. The clown and cart made another noisy, wobbly run in a semi-straight line. “See?” Denise said as if that proved her point.
“Whatever. Put it back.”
Denise picked up the clown again and studied him. “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll buy him. He has an arty edge.” She waggled the toy at Shirley and whispered, “Take me, take me.” Then she grinned impishly and teased, “Darcy would like him. He’s wants to go home with us. What d’ya think?”
Shirley wrinkled her nose in distaste at the clown and in annoyance at her friend’s playful taunting. “Do what you think is best. I’m going to keep looking.” Then she turned and proceeded down the aisle, hoping that Denise chose not to take that thing home. As she walked away, she heard Denise chuckling softly.
Shirley turned into the next aisle. She strolled along perusing the merchandise, looking for something appropriate. Most of the things were odd, yucky, or impractical, nothing impressive. What would I do with a trapeze swing? There were strings of lights, colorful flags, dusty stuffed toys, and cardboard boxes filled with old program books and magazines. A stack of peanut and popcorn bags bound together sat next to a few rolled-up posters with tattered edges on one shelf. Farther down, a framed black-and-white photo of a sideshow freak made her stop, look and then grimace before she moved on to the end of the aisle to a glass case. Inside were souvenir items, vintage tickets and postcards, metal pin-on circus buttons, pewter circus figurines, a set of wooden steel-tipped darts, and vintage plastic ducks used in the carnival games. The last two items had tags on them marked RARE.
Not seeing anything she wanted, Shirley headed into the space at the back of the store. This area had been used to display the larger items. Painted wooden placards formerly used in front of carnival rides were stacked there, a carousel lion, a camel, and a swan as well as food carts, arcade games, and folded up striped tents. Deciding to return to the front of the shop, glancing down an aisle, Shirley spotted a round table with a red tablecloth at the end. On the tabletop was a large crystal ball in its stand. She walked over to examine it.
Now that’s interesting. Then she looked at the price. No way. Norman won’t like that. Plus, what if Darcy knocks it over? As she turned to leave, her foot brushed up against something under the table. She lifted the tablecloth and peered under it. A quaint antique birdcage sat there.
Shirley thought she heard someone whispering. “Take me, take me.” She spun around quickly, expecting to see Denise behind her with the clown toy, but no one was there. She shivered before mentally berating herself. Denise is right. My imagination has run amok again and is causing me to hear things.
Intrigued by the cage and wanting to get her mind off the creepy clown mechanism, she set down her newly purchased flowers and pulled the birdcage out to look at it. It was rather large and too bulky for one to lift easily, so she crouched lower to inspect it further. Made of wood and painted like a carnival tent, it had red and white stripes adorning the top panel, which even had a front piece that was carved like a scalloped awning. The bars of the cage were wooden dowels. She looked through them at the back of the cage, which was painted a bright blue. The bird perches were long gone, but she could see where they had once been. Evidenced by the cracked and faded paint was the antiquity of the piece. Darcy would love this. Shirley looked at the small price tag taped to the top and smiled. Not bad. Rather cheap, in fact. Nothing like finding something cool and liking the price.
But where is the opening? She turned the cage around so she could look at the sides. Finding the opening on the left, it was a door made of dowels fitted into a frame that was shaped like a keyhole. Shirley admired the effort and workmanship of the keyhole portal. The frame was painted black and the knob to the cage door was actually a miniature red doorknob. Fastened underneath was a small placard. The placard looked a lot newer as if it had been attached much later, but it still had the patina of age about it. Shirley could see that there were two tiny lines of writing scrolled in gold ink on it. She kneeled down, picked up the birdcage, and tilted it so she could read what the little sign said.
All those who Wander
Are not Lost
“Take me, take me,” said the whisperer.
Clack, clack, clack. Shirley looked up and saw the clown headed down the aisle towards her. A little shriek of fright and surprise escaped her mouth as she dropped the cage. It clattered loudly as it hit the floor. Shirley scrambled to her feet as the toy stopped mid-aisle. There was a peal of laughter as Denise stuck her head out into the aisle.
“You should have seen your face!” Denise said as she emerged from her hiding place behind some boxes stacked there.
Angry, Shirley put her hands on her hips and said irritably, “That’s not funny! You could have given me a heart attack.”
“Aw, c’mon, silly goose, I was just playing,” Denise retorted, somewhat repentant. She walked over to the mechanical toy and kneeled down to pick it up.
“Don’t bring him over here for god’s sake.”
Denise tilted her head and asked contritely, “You don’t think he would go great in one of my art pieces?”
Shirley shook her head a definitive no.
Denise laughed and said, “Okay, you’re right. He is a bit freaky looking. Don’t want to scare the clientele away.” She picked up the clown and placed him on a lower shelf. Then she straightened and walked over to Shirley. “What’s this? A birdcage?”
“What do you think? I thought it would look good in my sunroom, filled with some ivy or another houseplant.”
“I like it. Although Darcy might want to get a parakeet or some lovebirds,” Denise suggested.
“We’ll see what Norman says about that. Do you think I should get it?”
Denise nodded her head yes.
“Did you find something?”
“Yeah, I have a stack of things piled up at the register. I was waiting for you, so I’ve been chatting with the lady. I’m ready to go. Are you?”
Shirley carried the cage to the front, took off her purse that was slung around her neck, and dug out her wallet. The women paid for their purchases and Shirley carried the cage to Denise’s car parked across the street. They put everything in the trunk before Shirley realized she forgot to pick up her purse.
“Weren’t you carrying another bag when you came in?” the proprietress asked Shirley when she retrieved her purse.
“Oh my gosh, thank you. I almost forgot my flowers.”
Denise had pulled the car around and was waiting in front as Shirley fetched her bag of flowers. The shopkeeper was kind enough to hold the door for Shirley again. “Thanks a lot,” Shirley told the woman as she left. “I hope your dad feels better.”
The storekeeper smiled at her. “We appreciate you taking these things off our hands. Enjoy.” Her grin widened, and her expression evoked an odd feeling. Almost a smirk. Shirley dismissed it as she placed her bag of flowers on the back seat, climbed into the front seat, and they drove away.
Norman looked askance at the cumbersome cage on the sunroom table, but his face brightened when Shirley told him the price. Then she told him about her day shopping and indicated the bag of silk flowers lying on the floor next to the table.
“Nice,” he said and then told her briefly about his day with Darcy. Mentally exhausted with this social interaction, he excused himself and went back to the den and his football game. Shirley went to Darcy’s room and found her lying on her bed, immersed in a book.
“Did you have fun with Daddy?”
Not bothering to look up, Darcy replied cheekily, “Oh sure. The hardware store was fantastic.” Then she looked up and said, “Did you have fun with Denise?”
Feeling guilty that she didn’t take her along, Shirley forgave Darcy’s rather saucy tone. Trying to divert a moody tiff, she ignored it and said perkily, “Come and see what I got! I think you’ll like it!”
Although Darcy tried to appear disinterested, the tactic worked, and she tossed the book aside and got up. Following her mother into the sunroom, when she saw the birdcage, she ran to it. “Awesome! It looks like a circus cage.”
As she peered into it, she said, “Can we get a bird to put in it?” Then she looked up at her mother with earnest eyes.
“We’ll have to ask Daddy about that one.”
A child beyond her years, Darcy answered morosely, “That’s a no.”
Shirley put her arm around Darcy’s shoulders. “How about a plant for now?”
Unenthused, Darcy shrugged. “What’s in there?” She pointed to the bag of flowers.
Shirley had a thought. To brighten Darcy’s mood, she said, “Why don’t you find out? You could put whatever you find in the cage. Decorate it while I make dinner.” She smiled brightly at her daughter. To enhance the idea, she pulled the cage over to the edge and turned it so Darcy could see the opening. “Look at this amazing door, look at that mini door knob.” She paused. “Or you could help me cook.” Shirley opened the cage door. “How bout it?” She looked at her daughter and then tilted her head at the bag of flowers before adding, “And… If you see something you want for your room, you can have it…”
“Okay…” Darcy agreed as Shirley knew she would. Darcy did not like peeling potatoes or carrots. The little girl reached out and traced the plaque affixed to the cage. “All those who wander are not lost.”
After dinner, Shirley oohed and aahed about Darcy’s job with the birdcage flower arrangement. Then she allowed her to stay up later than usual to watch an animated movie with her. As she got into bed, Darcy yawned before Shirley tucked her in and kissed her good night. “Hey, did you find something from the bag of flowers?”
Darcy nodded her head sleepily.
Shirley glanced around the room. “Where is it?” Her eyes fell upon the miniature carnival set that Denise had made for her daughter and marveled at the moveable Ferris wheel and her friend’s immense talent.
Drifting, Darcy mumbled, “Still in the bag. Closet…” Then she was silent.
Shirley kissed her sleeping daughter’s forehead and then walked down the hallway to her bedroom. After getting ready for bed, Shirley slipped under the sheets next to Norman. He was already on his side and softly snoring. Tired as well, Shirley fell asleep quickly.
She is in the hallway. There is a light coming from the kitchen. She goes to the kitchen and sees a chessboard. In the center, on a white square, is a black pawn. Clack, clack, clack. She looks up. The toy clown is there in the doorway. Rolling towards her…
Her heart pounding, Shirley woke up from her nightmare. Frightened, she opened her eyes and glanced around the room. It was quiet and dark except for Norman, fast asleep. She picked up her smartphone and checked the time. Three a.m. She sighed as she had to get up early the next day to take Darcy to school. Next time I’ll know better when Denise asks me to go antiquing with her. Then she smiled at her own folly. At least I found the birdcage. Determined to not think about the mechanical toy, she plugged in the earbuds, set her phone on her pillow, and listened to meditative sounds before finally drifting back to sleep.
Later that morning, after she had taken Darcy to school and Norman had left for work, Shirley went into Darcy’s closet to collect the dirty laundry and spotted the paper bag on the floor. Curious, she looked inside and pulled out a lavender rose. She tilted her head. Darcy’s favorite color is red. Shrugging, Shirley then took the flower and found a spot for it on Darcy’s bookshelf. She picked up the clothes basket and went about her daily chores.
A week later, Shirley was walking by the sunroom and thought she heard noises. Curious about their cause, as she was alone in the house, she walked into the room. Nothing seemed amiss, and the room was silent. Must be my imagination. She dismissed it from her mind until eleven more days went by and it happened again. She walked into the sunroom and looked around. Investigating under the table, behind the potted plants, Shirley went to look under the rattan chairs. “Do we have mice?” she mused out loud as she crouched down. Hearing a scraping noise behind her, startled, she turned to look but saw nothing. Getting up, she crossed the room to the table and saw the open door of the birdcage.
Was that open? Must have been. She closed the keyhole portal using the red doorknob. That door is so cute. Then she thought about rodents again. Perhaps I will tell Norman to pick up some mousetraps.
She is in the hallway. There is a light coming from the sunroom. She goes into the sunroom. The door to the birdcage is open. Clack, clack, clack. She looks up. The creepy toy clown is there in the doorway. Rolling towards her…
Her heart pounding, Shirley woke up from her nightmare. Frightened, she opened her eyes and glanced around the room. It was quiet and dark except for Norman snoring peacefully. She looked at her smartphone, three a.m. Not again. She frowned. Damn Denise and that freaky clown! Erf! Why did I go with her and get my imagination going? Then she reassured herself. It’s just mice! She plugged in her earbuds. Norman and I will look for mouse turds and get those traps.
“No poop, nothing,” Norman announced as he got up from kneeling on the sunroom floor. “It’s probably just the house settling or maybe something is coming in there at night.” He pointed to the pet door that the former owners had installed. “I’ll tape it shut. That should take care of the problem and keep the critters out.” He left to go to the garage and fetch his duct tape. Shirley didn’t agree totally with that theory as she had heard the noises during the day, but the other option was that she was going cuckoo and hearing things. She failed to tell him about the toy clown and her nightmares, as she knew he would tell her to stop hanging around Denise. She watched as he taped the door shut.
He got up and kissed her on the cheek. “Well, gotta get to work. Do you want me to pick up some takeout for dinner, since you’re at the art gallery today?”
“Yeah, that would be great.”
The shop had been fairly quiet all day. A few of the artists had stopped by to bring in new creations and most of the customers had been just browsing. However, one lady purchased one of Denise’s larger sculptures; Shirley was happy that it sold. It was almost closing time when the front doorbell tinkled, announcing another visitor. Shirley looked up from her book. Denise came in carrying a cardboard box.
The two friends greeted each other and Shirley asked Denise if she needed help with her stuff as she got up from behind the counter.
“Yeah, could you unload this? I have a couple more in the car.”
“Sure,” Shirley agreed and took the box from Denise. She set it down on the counter and looked inside. There were three small pieces, all inspired and built around circus objects that Denise had found on their trip to the antique store. Shirley took them out one by one and examined them. She liked them even though carnivals and circuses weren’t her favorite. They reminded her of Darcy’s miniature set with its Ferris wheel.
“Check this out!” Denise said as she walked in the door. She was carrying two canvases and turned them around so that Shirley could see them. One of them struck her immediately. It was a mixed media collage of historical photos, paint, fabric, small found objects, and pieces of wood. The antique images were of carnivals and carnie folk. The primary focus of the painting was a red and white striped tent off to one side with a darkened interior. Gaping black…The otherworldly opening beckoned one inside…
Shirley pivoted her gaze away.
“All the images are from a box of old photos and programs that I bought from the antique store. I thought I captured the spirit of them, don’t you?”
“Do you like them?” Denise prompted.
“Uh huh,” Shirley lied. She didn’t want to tell her friend that her painting of the carnival tent gave her the willies.
Denise held up it higher. “Your bird cage gave me the inspiration for this one.”
“Where are you going to hang them?” Shirley asked, fervently hoping they would be in the back of the gallery and out of sight.
“Maybe in the back…”
“You don’t like them.”
“Okay, you’re right,” Shirley confessed and pointed to the one painting. “That one reminds me of that freaky toy clown you were teasing me with…”
“You mean Smiley?”
“Why did you give him a name?” Shirley asked despondently.
“I don’t know. Just seems to fit him, don’t you think?” Seeing her friend’s troubled face, Denise added reassuringly, “C’mon, he was just some kid’s toy. You’re being silly again. And I thought I had a creative imagination.” Denise grinned at her and walked to the back with the paintings before calling to Shirley, “How about a cup of tea?”
“Sure.” Then Shirley remembered about the sale. “Hey, one of your sculptures sold. How about if I put your new little pieces on its stand?”
Shirley had just finished arranging the pieces as Denise brought the tea and set the steaming cups on the counter. The women sat on the barstools behind it and looked at the carnival art.
“Those look great!” Denise said.
“They should sell pretty fast. Your stuff always does.”
The compliment brought a cheerful look to Denise’s face. “Thanks,” she told Shirley. They both sipped their tea.
“I like them and I don’t even like carnivals.” Shirley pursed her lips, rolled her eyes, and added, “Or clowns.” Together, they laughed at her statement. She told Denise, “You’re right. My imagination has gone crazy. I had two nightmares about him.”
“Don’t call him that,” Shirley admonished her friend. “I dreamed he was in the house, always rolling toward me… Now, I am hearing weird noises.” She stuck out her tongue at Denise. “Thanks a lot, buddy.”
“What kind of noises?”
“Oh, just noises. Norman thinks it might be animals coming in through the old pet door or the house is settling and creaking.”
“Yeah, it’s probably that. It’s an old house.” Denise took another sip of tea and nodded her head towards the back of the gallery. “Speaking of old, some of those photos I used were hauntingly beautiful. They really drew me to them, capturing a bit of history and people of a bygone era. I felt like the photos had preserved their memory.” Hesitating, she spookily added, “No… Their presence…” Then her eyes took on a faraway look, and she muttered. “I had to keep them alive.” Falling silent for a few moments before she snapped out of her reverie and chuckled. “Perhaps it was just because of the story of the freak accident that the shopkeeper told me…”
Shirley remembered when the woman had mentioned it. “Yes, she alluded to it, but didn’t elaborate. What did she tell you?”
“Well, apparently, the accident was a train wreck, with people and animals injured or killed. Afterwards, a mysterious fire broke out and burned a lot of stuff. Then some other strange occurrences happened and the workers and performers started leaving before the carnival eventually broke up. Somehow, a story got started of objects related to the carnival being cursed and haunted. The shopkeeper’s grandpa didn’t believe it and so got the stuff for cheap.” Denise took a sip of tea. “The lady said it was complete nonsense. That nothing bad ever happened while her uncle and dad were running their carnival. She said that she overheard her grandfather tell her uncle that he thought the previous owner had concocted everything. He said that the guy was tired of the business and wanted it to end. But most of all, because he wanted to collect the insurance.”
Stunned, Shirley exclaimed, “Collect the insurance?! Like he orchestrated a train wreck and a fire?!”
Denise shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t believe it. Nobody would do that, right? I mean, nobody in their right mind.”
“I certainly hope not. That’s a really horrible and disturbing story. I don’t know what creeps me out more, the stuff being haunted, the owner being capable of such evil or her grandpa thinking that someone would do that for money. Why do you think she told you all that?”
“I’m not sure why she told me all that.” Denise laughed nervously. “She told me after I bought everything. When I couldn’t return it.” Denise grimaced. “Maybe because I told her I was an artist and liked strange and odd things when she commented on my unusual purchases. I told her they were to be repurposed and bound for the gallery.”
Denise sipped her tea and then looked at her watch before putting down her cup. “Hey! It’s Friday and quitting time! I’m feeling generous with my sale. Let’s get out of here and go have some fun at Happy Hour before you go home to Norman.” She grinned and winked. “I’m buying.”
She is in the hallway. There is a light coming from Darcy’s room. She walks into her room. There is a burning candle on the table with the miniature carnival. Clack, clack, clack. She looks up. Smiley is there in the closet doorway. Rolling towards her…
Her heart pounding, Shirley woke up from her nightmare. Frightened, she opened her eyes and glanced around the room. It was quiet and dark except for the sound of Norman. She looked at her smartphone; three a.m. Again. She scooted closer to her husband and pulled the bedcover up to her chin. OMG! I’m losing it. Freakin’ Denise and her story! I’m gonna have to go to the doctor and get some sleeping pills or find a psychologist. Why did she have to name that clown? Smiley. Arggh! Shirley plugged in her earbuds and turned up the meditative music to drown out the face of the mechanical toy with the eerie eyes and mischievous grin.
The next day, after Norman had left for his usual Saturday morning time at the golf course driving range, Shirley walked into Darcy’s room carrying a basket of folded laundry. Darcy was sitting in front of the table with the miniature carnival set. She was humming a strange tune unfamiliar to Shirley and with her finger was slowly turning the Ferris wheel around and around.
“Hey, honey,” Shirley said to her daughter.
Darcy stopped what she was doing and turned to look at her mother with glazed eyes. It reminded Shirley of the look that Denise had the day before when she was talking about the old carnival photos. Darcy blinked and then replied, “Oh, hi Mom.” Her daughter returned to her former activity of humming and turning.
Puzzled by her behavior, Shirley tried to stimulate conversation. “That was really neat that Denise made that set for you. I didn’t know that you played with it much. I thought it was just for decoration.”
Without turning around, Darcy stopped humming and responded, “I didn’t play with it. Not before him.” The Ferris wheel continued to circle.
The basket slipped from Shirley’s hands and fell to the floor; the clothes tumbling out of it. “Smiley?” Not wanting to hear the answer, Shirley asked anyway. “Who’s Smiley?”
Her back to Shirley, Darcy kept rotating the Ferris wheel. “You know Smiley, Mom.” She turned and looked at her mother with a distracted expression and a tilted head as if she was listening to some unheard sound. “He says that you shouldn’t be afraid of him. Smiley just likes attention.” She looked at the basket of spilled garments.
Feeling her throbbing pulse, Shirley repeated robotically, “Smiley? Be afraid of Smiley?” When Darcy nodded in the affirmative, she haltingly asked her, “How do you… know… Smiley?”
Darcy seemed to snap back to her old self at this point and her saucy ways. She gestured questioningly with her hands. “C’mon Mom. Really?”
Darcy rolled her eyes at her mother; then she got up and went to her closet. She opened the door, went inside, and a moment later, she emerged. In her hand was Smiley the Clown.
Seeing the mechanical toy sent an electric shock through her. Placing her hand over her heart, Shirley practically fell onto the edge of Darcy’s bed. “Where… where did you get that?”
Darcy looked at her mother suspiciously before becoming defiant. “You said I could have anything I wanted in the bag.” She pointed to the lavender rose. “I chose that and him.” She held Smiley to her chest.
Shirley could barely maintain her gaze at her child with the creepy clown gripped in her hands. She didn’t understand. How did that thing get in there? Her chest constricted, she felt dizzy-headed. Forcing herself to take a breath, she asked, “He was in the bag of flowers?”
“Yeah.” Now it was Darcy’s turn to be puzzled. “Didn’t you get him for me?”
“No,” Shirley shook her head, but seeing the frown forming on Darcy’s face, she quickly added, “I mean, I don’t know how he got into the bag. The shopkeeper must have accidentally put him in there.” As she was saying it, Shirley was contemplating the absurdity of her statement. But then she remembered the smirk on the lady’s face. She stood up. “I didn’t pay for him; we have to return him to her.”
Her headstrong attitude surfaced, and Darcy clutched Smiley tighter to her chest. “No. I want to keep him.” She was silent as she tilted her head again in a mysterious, attentive way. Then she announced, “I’ll ask Daddy to pay the lady.”
Shirley and Norman were lying in bed. “That thing is freaky and giving me nightmares,” she told him.
“It’s just a harmless toy.”
Shirley thought about Smiley rolling around the house unattended. “I’m hearing strange noises now.”
Norman blew off her notions. “I told you that’s just your imagination. Old houses creak.”
“I don’t like it and I don’t want it in my house,” she said adamantly.
“Darcy is pretty set on having it,” Norman replied. As usual, he was noncommittal and reluctant to take sides.
“Well, we’re going to have to change her mind,” Shirley said a little more forcefully.
“And how do you propose we are going to do that?” he responded gruffly. Shirley knew that her tone annoyed him, but more so because he was being put in the middle of the argument.
Shirley chewed her lips, trying to devise a plan. “Maybe we can take it back to the store and tell the lady that we didn’t pay for it and we don’t want it. Then we take Darcy to the shopping mall and buy her something new. Something expensive.”
Norman sighed. Shirley could tell her idea did not enthuse him. “I don’t know, Shirl, you know when Darcy decides about something—”
“I know she can be a real pain-in-the-ass.”
Shirley thought about her daughter’s behavior earlier in the day. After Shirley had suggested that Smiley be taken back to the antique store, Darcy became moody and quiet until Shirley left the room. Then later, when Shirley walked by Darcy’s room, she noticed her door was closed. Darcy had taped a paper sign on it. Written in black marker was: Private Do not Enter. Shirley could hear her daughter talking and laughing inside her room.
Shirley propped on her elbow and turned to face her husband. “Darcy was in her room alone, talking and laughing. Like she was having a conversation with someone. It was weird. There is something wrong with that toy. Besides, Denise told me a story about the carnival where it came from…”
Norman interrupted her with a gloating retort. “Now there’s the real problem. How many times have I told you about Denise? She’s the weird one. Quit working at the gallery; we don’t need the extra income. Maybe if you stopped hanging out with her, you wouldn’t have nightmares. You’d think that you would have figured that one out by now. I mean, that hideous art she produces… Freakin doll parts… Seriously, what twisted mind actually pays money for that crap?”
Shirley had known it was coming, but she got mad anyway. She sat up. “Why do you always have to make everything about Denise bad? Just because you don’t like her artistic style? Face it: you don’t want me to have any friends or a job. You just want me to stay at home all day cooking and cleaning the house,” she harshly accused him.
Norman looked at her, the clock, and then stated flatly, “I’m not gonna argue about this right now. I’m meeting Jim for an early round of golf tomorrow.” He turned over and clicked off the light. “My suggestion is that you and Denise take that thing back to where you two found it. I’ll talk to Darcy about it while you’re gone.”
Denise was unavailable; the gallery was hosting an opening party for a new artist that afternoon. As she drove to the antique mall alone, Shirley worried about getting rid of the mechanical clown. She remembered that the sign on the door had said: All sales final. But she really didn’t sell him to me. Then she thought about the lady’s facial expression. Had she purposefully put the toy in her bag of flowers? Why would she do that? Unless she really wanted to get rid of it. Well, I am just going to make her take him back, Shirley thought resolutely. She pulled her car up to the curb and parked it. Grabbing the paper bag with the toy in it, she got out before noticing that the storefront looked dark.
She crossed the street and approached the store. They had replaced the sale sign with another. CLOSED, it said. “What?” Shirley muttered through clenched teeth. Peering into the window, she noted the dark and empty interior. She couldn’t believe her eyes and thoughts ran through her mind. It had only been three weeks. What happened? Where did everything go? Had all of it sold that quickly? She looked down at the mail slot. I wouldn’t have to lie to Darcy or Norman. The clown was back in the store. Maybe… Opening the slot, Shirley tried stuffing the bag in, but it wouldn’t fit.
“What are you doing?” a voice asked her.
Jerking her head up, she stopped what she was doing. A decrepit homeless man with long, ratty, gray hair dressed in rumpled clothes stood there. He was unshaven and smelled bad.
“They’re gone, you know,” he told her. “Won’t be back, she said so.”
Not wanting to engage in conversation with him but interested in what information he might have, Shirley asked, “The shopkeeper you mean?”
The indigent nodded his head.
“What did she tell you? Do you know where she went?” Shirley probed.
Rather peculiar, the old vagabond didn’t answer her. Instead, he just motioned her to follow him as he shuffled past and into the alley between the buildings. “She was nice. I told her I like carnivals, and she gave me some of her stuff,” he said over his shoulder. “Come and see it.” He fell silent but kept walking.
Shirley hesitated; she didn’t want to accompany the old weirdo into the long alley. She looked at the bag in her hand. “Hey, wait! I have something else you might want.”
He didn’t seem to hear her or want to answer as he kept walking and disappeared around the corner of the building. She mulled over the situation. It’s broad daylight. He’s ancient. What could he do? Then she thought about Smiley and she was determined to get rid of him. Reluctantly, she ventured into the alley and followed the old eccentric to the back of the building. When she turned the corner, she saw him standing by a small red and white striped tent. She recognized it as one that had been stacked and folded in the store. The man had made it his temporary home until the police discovered him and moved him on.
Shirley stopped and dug the clown out of the bag. She held him out so that the tramp could see him. “This was hers too. Accidentally put it in one of my bags. I don’t want it, do you?” She prayed he would say yes. To her relief, the man nodded yes.
But to her horror, he walked over to the tent, pulled the door flap open, and pointed to the interior. “I’ll take him if you put him inside.” The odd man grinned at her and she noticed gaps in his teeth. The memory of Denise’s painting swam into her mind. Gaping black…The otherworldly opening beckoned one inside…
Frightened, she said, “No. Here you go.” Tossing the toy at his feet, she dropped the bag and turned around quickly. Trotting back to her car, about a third of the way down the alley, Shirley could hear footsteps following her. She quickened her pace and loped. I can outrun an old man. Halfway before she made it to the street, a powerful, claw-like grasp fastened on her arm, jerked her backward, and spun her around.
She shrieked in surprise and tried to wrest her arm away, but he tightened his forceful grip. Shaking, she commanded, “Let me go!”
His buggy eyes, under bushy gray eyebrows, held her gaze. “I will not hurt you,” he said, his fetid breath nearly gagging her. Then he narrowed his eyes and hissed, “As long as you take back your friend.” Holding up the bag to her face, the bum waggled it. Scared stiff, Shirley studied his face as she listened to his gravelly voice. “He wants to stay with you because you pay attention.” She recoiled in horror upon hearing his statement, but also from the evil smirk with dried spittle at the corners of his mouth. Then, to her dreaded surprise, he got the same strange, faraway look as Darcy and Denise. Listening intently with a tilted head. “He knows where you live,” he said and then spoke the address.
Shirley’s jaw dropped.
“Take it now!” he ordered. She did as he commanded and took the bag from him. He let go of her arm. “I’m watching you. Don’t try anything funny. Now, get out of here before we change our minds.”
She turned and fled to her car without looking back.
Not knowing what else to do, Shirley drove directly to the gallery. Upon arrival, after seeing Shirley’s expression, Denise ushered her into the storeroom at the rear of the gallery. Most of the party attendees had already left and the new artist was busy entertaining the last of them. Denise fetched a glass and an open bottle of wine and shut the door. After guzzling a glass of wine, the story of everything that had recently happened to her spilled from Shirley’s lips in hushed tones.
Denise wagged her head. “That’s weird. The shopkeeper is gone? Gave her stuff to a creepy bum that’s living behind the store? Wow!” As she watched Shirley gulp her second glass of liquor, Denise questioned her, “But stranger still, how did Darcy come up with the same name? And how did Smiley get in the bag?”
“The woman must have put him in there when we carried our stuff out to the car.” Shirley told her friend about the shopkeeper’s facial expression when they left. “What matters now is that I have to get rid of him somehow.”
“Let’s throw him in the dumpster.”
“What if he comes back?”
“How is he going to come back?”
“The old man said that the toy knows where I live. He told me that the clown wants to stay with me because I pay attention.”
“Didn’t Darcy say that too? That Smiley likes attention?”
Shirley looked at her. “Yes. Another weird coincidence.”
The women fell silent as they contemplated the situation. Finally, Denise asked her where Smiley was. Shirley finished her wine and answered, “He’s in the bag in my car.”
“What if I took him?”
Shirley grimaced. “Why? And do what with him?”
“Well, apparently, Smiley likes attention. What if… what if I made him into an art piece? I could donate him. There are a couple of art museums that have been asking me for a while…”
Shirley nodded her head.
“Smiley would like the attention, and we could tell Darcy that it was for the best. That he went to a suitable home.”
“I like it.”
When Shirley got home and told Darcy the good news about Smiley finding a new home, her daughter was pleased. Shirley was happy too. No more nightmares and noises. Or so she thought…
© 2022 J Fremont