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.
Holy carp, how long has it been since I turned in a flash fiction?
Well, this one’s not complete, but that’s by design: Chuck’s challenge this week is to start off a horror story that somebody else will (hopefully) pick up and run with. I figured, hey, clowns are topical right now, right?
Anyway. Sorry to the clown-phobes in attendance. Guess I shoulda put a trigger warning up top, huh?