They were old enough to have become nice boys, Jake and Jimmy, but somehow they had not. Their families would later describe them as upstanding young men who seemed so unlikely to have run away, to disappear just like that, but who can ever say, really, with boys like them. They were old enough to know it’s good to be kind, but we must admit that their collective maturity declined when they ventured out together.
Each summer Jake and Jimmy spent a long July weekend at the traveling carnival in the parking lot of an abandoned shopping center on the south edge of town. The boys and the rest of the town’s young people gathered to mill around the carnival grounds, to eat oddly shaped dough fried in the same oil, probably, that had always been used there, to ride rides that passed safety inspections sometime just before the Korean War. But these were distractions, really, the rides and the food and the milling. Jake and Jimmy went to the fair to see the people who were there because everyone was there. What else was there to do in this town on long weekends in the heart of the Indiana summer?
A few years back, Jake and Jimmy grew brave enough to climb the rickety stairs to the top of the three-humped slide, to sit on the burlap sack and careen down. Thus they knew the man who always ran the slide, a shuffling, tall old man whose gray stringy hair perfectly resembled a mop, whose baggy face reminded the boys of a hound dog they’d seen in a cartoon, whose heavy forehead squeezed his eyes to slits and whose doughy round cheeks each year dragged his jawline closer to the collar of the same old denim jacket. He mumbled to the kids who went through the turnstile as though the bagginess of his face muffled his speech.
“Mmmm mmm two tickets mmm mmm mmm,” he said to each one, and “Mmm take a sack mmmm.” The old man stood under a tiny little roof with a never-ending supply of burlap sacks piled next to him and a makeshift lost-and found piled behind him, mostly filled with odd flip-flops and children’s weatherworn shoes, the same shoes perhaps that had been there since the 1950s safety inspector last took his leave.
As Jake and Jimmy got older, and perhaps became less kind when they were together, they grew more fascinated with the baggy old man who ran the burlap sack slide. By now they were clearly too old to find the slide amusing. They were young enough, perhaps, to still be afraid of the rickety bigger rides, but each felt himself too tough to confess that fear. So both boys, this summer, felt that edgy awkward discomfort of the in-between stages that finds its best outlet in ridiculing someone else. Both boys, as they handed their tickets to the baggy old man, noticed simultaneously, as though their brains were wired together, that the old man was just so weird. Jake decided on a whim to speak to him.
“What’s your name, old man?” he asked.
“Mmm mmm mmm two tickets mmm mmm.”
“Yes,” Jimmy said, “here’s the tickets. What’s your name? C’mon. You seen us here for years.
We’re like old friends. We should totally know your name.”
The old man glanced down at them through his eye slits.
“Mmm mmm mmm Bill Cox mmm mmm take a sack.”
The boys took their sacks and moved toward the stairs.
“What did he say?” Jimmy said.
“Dunno,” Jake said. “Maybe Bill Cox? Sounded like Bill Cox.”
Jimmy giggled. “Cox,” he said, and they laughed, as boys will.
Later that same night, in the midst of a gentle rain, the boys went through the line again, grabbed the burlap sack, and asked the man’s name, just to hear him say it. He showed no impatience, no awareness that these same boys had already asked this same question. “Mmm mmm mmm Bill Cox mmm mm take a sack,” he said.
This time Jimmy tried to extend the conversation. “Where’d all those shoes come from?”
The old man turned his head slowly as though to glance over his shoulder at the lost-and-found. “Mmm mmmmmm mine mmmm found ‘em mmmm take a sack.”
The boys took their sacks and once more giggled at the old man’s last name and odd manner.
Of course the boys soon tired of this game, as boys do, and thus sought other ways to have fun with old Bill. They each grabbed an elephant ear and stood munching them while watching Bill from across the midway. He provided poor entertainment as he stood there, barely moving, protected from the misty rain under his little roof, trading tickets for sacks, guarding his collection of shoes.
One of the boys said between bites, “I wonder where he sleeps at night.” They had noticed a few mobile trailers at the edge of the parking lot near the big trucks that must have brought the rides. It seemed reasonable to them that Bill used one of those trailers as a traveling home. Again, as though their brains were wired together, they silently decided to wait for Bill to go off duty and then to follow him back to his trailer.
Sometime later, and for no discernable reason, Bill left his post. Two little boys and a harried mother looked on in stunned silence as Bill turned his back and walked away.
“Hey!” the mother called as her boys started to whimper. “Where are you going?”
“Mmmm home mmmm,” Bill said and shuffled off.
Jake and Jimmy watched as the old man trudged around the corner and down the length of the slide toward a dark shed they had not noticed in the shadow of the slide’s upper platform. The shed was easily tall enough to stand in but was neither wide nor deep. It resembled an outhouse, which is what the boys assumed it must be. They both briefly considered doing something nasty to Bill while he used the outhouse but both balked at the meanness that required, though neither would have admitted it to the other. So they waited for Bill to emerge and lead them to his trailer.
And they waited. And they waited some more.
“He didn’t come out, did he?” Jake said.
“I didn’t see him,” Jimmy said.
“What’s he doing in there?”
Both boys stared into the shadows. The gentle rain became less gentle, sending some of the fairgoers scurrying for their cars. The boys glanced at each other and then moved forward.
“It’ll be dry under the slide,” one of them said.
“Yeah,” the other said.
They walked under the slide but did not stop for shelter. They walked together, mutually motivated, to the door of the little shed in the shadows. If either of them thought this was a bad idea, as it clearly was, he kept it to himself. Jake put his ear to the door and after a moment stood back and shook his head. Jimmy put his hand on the door handle and looked at Jake, who nodded. After a moment, Jimmy yanked the door open.
Inside, of course, was empty darkness.
After a silent moment, when undoubtedly both boys considered running away but chose not to so as to impress the other, Jake and Jimmy stepped forward to look more closely at the interior of the shed. It should surprise no one that two hands emerged from the darkness and grabbed each boy by the shirtfront and pulled them inside. A burlap sack was shoved over each head before either boy had a chance to speak. The musty scratchiness grew black and soft as both boys were rendered unconscious, as such boys will be in such moments.
They awoke to the same scratchy mustiness. They were seated on tile and surrounded, they could tell even through the burlap, by blaring light. At their first movements the sacks were yanked off their heads. Bill stood over them, his dirty mop hair hanging down over his baggy face as he looked down.
“Mmm mmm shouldn’t mmm,” he said. His mop swayed back and forth as he shook his head, perhaps sadly. “Mmm really shouldn’t mmm have. Mmm sorry mmm.”
The boys looked around at this tiled room. Jimmy noticed a ladder on the side wall leading up into the darkness. Jake noticed a mirror with a row of lights above it and two sinks and two bathroom stalls on the back wall. Both boys noted the unlit hallway that led off to the right and away from this room and dreamed of running down it. Both strained against their wrist and ankle bindings to no avail and considered screaming, but didn’t.
Bill stood over the boys for a moment, and though his baggy face was impossible to read, both boys hoped they saw sadness in his eyes, maybe regret, maybe the hint of an inclination to let them go.
Two things happened before the boys could discover the cause of Bill’s hesitation. First, the dark hallway to the right started to flicker, gently but with increasing brightness, as though a small fire had ignited and was spreading quickly. And second, a whisper, crackly like fire itself, traveled down that hallway to the room where Bill stood over the boys.
The whisper said, “Get them ready.” And after a pause, said, “Hire them! Train them! Do it now!” Then the hallway went dark once more.
Bill shook his mop again and took a step back from the boys. “Mmm mmm get ready mmm mmmmmm,” he said, and then turned away toward the mirror. He removed his dank denim jacket and folded it in two and draped it over the sink on the left. The boys noticed that their own shoes had been placed neatly underneath that same sink.
“Mmm mine mmmm found ‘em mmm,” Bill said, as though he knew what they had seen. The boys scooted a little closer together.
They watched as the old man leaned forward and gathered his hair into a big bundle, as though to make a pony tail. They marveled that the underside of his hair was not the same grey mop they’d seen before, but rather a fiery, glossy red. The old man pulled his gray and red hair back from his face, fully exposing his baggy forehead and heavy cheeks, and then wound the hair into a bun, round and round, tighter and tighter, a thick coil of flaming red hair swallowing the gray.
“Mmm tighter tighter tighter mmm,” he said.
The boys stared at the mirror as the old man twisted and coiled his hair. He kept winding the coil when it seemed it could not get any tighter. And then the boys saw this: the hair coil pulled the baggy forehead back, pulled the heavy cheeks back, until they were tight and smooth, until the old man’s face became unlined, until the mouth was stretched into a demonic smile, until the eyes were slits no more but shone wide open and red, until the face wore the look of ecstatic surprise.
“Still tighter!” the man said, his voice now distinct and loud. And still he wound the coil of red hair. His forehead pulled smooth, his hairline receded to the top of his head, his eyes stretched sideways until they were slits once more, the outside corners nearly reaching his ears. His smile stretched wider than any smile ever should. He cackled and cackled as he continued to wind the coil.
“One more turn!” he growled through gritted teeth. His face was nearly immobile from the strain. “One more!” With the final turn, the outer corners of his eyes tore with a discernable tiny pop. Small tears of blood drifted from his eyes down behind his ears. He cackled again.
“There!” he said, and turned to face the boys, who finally, and with gusto, screamed for all they were worth.
The smiling man chuckled and turned back to the mirror. He pulsed, energized. With quick precision he painted his face and forehead white, put glaring red lipstick on his wide mouth, then shadowed his eyes and traced the blood lines behind his ears with black grease. He dribbled something dark red on his chin and neck, then looked from side to side in the mirror as though inspecting his work. Finally he turned back to the boys.
“Time to go!” he cried and walked toward them.
“Wait!” Jimmy said as the clown reached down for him. “Go where?”
“To work!” the clown said. “We must get you ready for your new jobs.” With impossible strength he lifted both boys by their shirtfronts and carried them across the room. He slammed them both down on their feet in front of the mirror. He laughed deep down in his throat.
“You boys won’t need white paint,” he said. His lips did not, could not move. “You’re already pale enough.”
“Now, wait, Bill,” Jake said, but the clown cut him off.
“My name is not Bill,” he said.
“You told us your name was Bill Cox,” Jimmy said, this time not giggling at the name, not thinking giggly thoughts at all.
“Little boys never listen well,” the clown said. He bent down and pulled the boys’ heads closer to his. The three stared at each other in the mirror. “I told you,” he whispered, “my name is Botox.”
The clown jolted upright and grabbed the hair on the back of each boy’s head. He gathered the hair into a fist. The boys whimpered.
“Wait!” Jake yelled. Both boys shook from head to toe. Both feared they might wet themselves.
“Please!” Jake yelled again. The pressure eased on the back of their heads. Botox looked at him in the mirror and waited. Jake scrambled in his mind for something to say but failed.
Jimmy broke in. “What do you want with us? Look, listen, dude, we promise, we won’t tell anyone you dress up as a clown at night. Please.”
Botox raised his frozen face to the ceiling and laughed. More blood tears slid from the torn corners of his eyelids. “Silly boys,” he said and leaned down between the boys again, still holding fistfuls of hair. He jerked their heads back and forth as he spoke. “I don’t dress up as a clown at night! I dress up as a man during the day!”
His laugh became a cackle, the sound echoing through the room. The fire flickered and roared down the hallway once more. Both boys screamed.
Botox stopped laughing abruptly and yanked the boys’ hair harder than ever.
“Now,” he said, “let’s get you ready. The training begins!”
And he pulled their hair, short as it was, until he formed small coils, one in each hand, and then he twisted the coils around and around and around. The boys watched their faces stretch and stretch and they screamed and screamed until they could no longer see or hear, until their eyes leaked blood tears and their lips widened into rictus smiles, until darkness descended over them like musty burlap sacks.
In the morning, two gray, wrinkled, careworn maintenance workers in loose coveralls and work boots emerged from a small shed in the shadows under the big slide at the edge of the carnival. The coveralls bore the name of the travelling carnival company. The boots were too big, but not terribly so. The workers moved slowly, one in front of the other, and headed by a circuitous route to the supply shed across the midway, as though they weren’t quite sure how to get there. Soon they separated and moved through the grounds with brooms and dustpans, sweeping up cigarette butts, looking for all the world like they were on the job for the long haul and always had been. They would sweep the grounds for the next three days and nights until the carnival, with its two new workers in tow, packed up and moved on.
Meanwhile, an old man emerged from that same small shed in the shadows. He shuffled toward the little enclosure near the turnstile where a line of patrons had already gathered, tickets in hand. The old man entered the enclosure and set down two pairs of shoes in his little lost and found.
“Mmm mmmm found ‘em,” he muttered. “Mmm mmmm mine.”
Aaron J. Housholder teaches writing and literature at Taylor University in Upland, IN. His stories and essays have appeared in a couple dozen online and print journals, including Ruminate, Five2One Magazine, The Molotov Cocktail, Off the Page, Flash Fiction Magazine, and others. He currently serves as the Fiction Editor for Relief Journal. You can find him on Twitter @ProfAJH.