Black Petals Issue #106 Winter, 2023

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BP Editorial Page
BP Artists and Illustrators
BP Guidelines
Mars-News, Views and Commentary
The Thing in the Yard: Fiction by Vincent Vurchio
A Forest Green: Fiction by Logan Williams
Clown Safe: Fiction by Taylor Hagood
Home Delivery: Fiction by Jon Adcock
Judith and Bobby Save the World: Fiction by Stephen Tillman
Many Wee Undead: Fiction by Marco Etheridge
Meat Pie: Fiction by Anna Koltes
Mexican Coffee and Burgers: Fiction by Fred Zackel
Leaving: Fiction by Roy Dorman
The Ghost of the Perfect Hotdog: Fiction by Mark Miller
The Illustrated Woman: Fiction by Jen Myers
Thrice in One Sitting: Fiction by Justin Alcala
In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning: Fiction by Gene Lass
AI Self-Mortification: Flash Fiction by Christopher Henckel
Correct Mistake: Flash Fiction by Eric Burbridge
A Moment of Inertia: Flash Fiction by Sean MacKendrick
Get Your Kicks on Route 666: Flash Fiction by M. L. Fortier
Let's Do Lunch: Flash Fiction by Hillary Lyon
"Three Wishes": Flash Fiction by Ronin Fox
Woodsman's Revenge: Flash Fiction by Jada Maze
To a Crow: Poem by Michael Keshigian
Estranged: Poem by Michael Keshigian
At the Terminal: Poem by Michael Keshigian
Angler's Nightmare: Poem by Michael Keshigian
Last Thirteen Steps: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Murderous Words: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
My Childhood Snapshot: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
With Vampires About: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
The Zombies are Loose: Poem by C. Renee Kiser
Lil' Toe Dipper: Poem by C. Renee Kiser
Scattered Pieces: Poem by Andrew Graber

Taylor Hagood: Clown Safe

106_bp_clownsafe_jsowder.jpg
Art by John Sowder 2024

Clown Safe

by Taylor Hagood

 

          Sherry walked into Bryceton Antique Store, which was housed in an old bank building. The glass door, closing behind her, skewed the run-down buildings across the street and the hills beyond. A smattering of trees had already turned yellow. But on this raw day in this forgotten town on the river they looked harsh rather than beautiful.

Rain had been falling from low-draping gray clouds for over three weeks, and the river had risen to an astonishingly high sheet of swooping slate. It had reached the level of Main Street and threatened to spread into the buildings themselves like a visitor with no tact whom nice people cannot figure out how to refuse or repel.

          The door settled into its old wooden frame with a jittery jingle of a tiny bell, and Sherry smelled incense. The smell dissipated the usual antique store smell of old paper, used up clothing, and stained furniture.

          “You’re welcome in,” said the woman standing behind the counter. Her short wiry hair had long since faded from red to a pale orange mixed with white. She wore large glasses with clear frames and thick lenses. I CARE was printed in dark blue letters across the front of her yellow t-shirt.

          “Thanks,” Sherry said to the unorthodox greeting.

In fact, Sherry hardly heard the woman and took no real notice of what she had said. Her mind was fifty miles away from this store and this river town. She was thinking about earlier today when she dropped off her eight-year-old son, Flynn, with her ex. She had hurried away so that neither of them could see her tears, got in her Ford Escape, and started driving eastward. She had no real destination in mind. Before she knew it, she was just here. She saw this store and decided to park and go in for no particular reason except that she was now far enough away from her life.

          This town did fit her mood. All these towns along the river were slowly dying since the mills went out. This one matched her current feelings. So did the antique store, especially when the first corner she turned revealed a booth full of little boys’ toys. There were Hot Wheels, Tonka Trucks, remote-control cars, and Spiderman, Batman, and Superman figures. All were packaged in that familiar style that reminded her of trips to toy stores with Flynn.

          She felt tears forcing themselves into her eyes and blinked them back. She remembered the look of Flynn when he was two, when he was four, when he was six. He was growing so tall so fast now. His body had grown leggy and thinner, no longer a toddler’s. He was big for his age anyway. And his face was beginning to take on the shape it would have when he was grown. She could see it in the photographs she took with her Iphone.

I hope he’ll be little a little longer, she told herself.

          She made herself walk on away from that booth, but its display burned in her brain along with the look on Flynn’s face this morning when she dropped him off and he ran to his dad. She kept trying to remember a time when his face beamed with such joy to see her.

          Then another image grabbed her attention. She had been looking at it for a moment before it registered with her. Hanging on the wall in another booth in an 8 x 10 cheap frame was a grainy black-and-white photograph of a clown. It was a sinister clown, his eyes glaring and aggressive behind a disturbing smile.

          She felt jolted before the image’s fierceness, stepping back as though it had reached out and pushed her. She looked around the rest of the booth, which was unremarkable. Then her eyes drew back to the photograph. The sticker on it announced $13.

          Sherry smiled at that. Ok, this booth-owner had a sick since of humor. Halloween approached, only two weeks away, so why not?

          “All the prices are negotiable, honey,” the woman behind the counter said as Sherry now passed by. The woman had not moved, nor had she actually looked at Sherry either time she spoke to her.

          “Ok, thanks.”

          “Just let me know.”

          “I will.”

          “Good. You’re welcome in.”

          The latter phrase struck Sherry this time. She had never heard anyone say that. It must have been a purely individual quirk. It got Sherry to thinking about how sometimes people will reason out things and decide they should be said a certain way. She remembered somewhere along the line hearing people talk about something being said “inside” a book instead of just “in” it. They were very literally minded people, Sherry had decided. She wondered what line of reasoning got this woman to say “You’re welcome in.”

          Sherry wound her way through the store. In the back corner of what had been the lobby a short flight of stairs led to a raised room open to view by floor-to-ceiling windows. Sherry envisioned what this bank would have looked like in the 1930s, 40s, or 50s. Or was it inside those years?

As she walked up the few steps, she imagined coming in here to discuss getting a loan. It reminded her of buying the house with her ex and the fact that she now lived in a tiny, drab apartment over her ex-mother-in-law’s garage. She fought those thoughts off, choosing instead to enjoy the fun of imaginative time travel.

A new smiling face smashed into her vision. Another clown photo. A different clown, but the same grainy black-and-white in the same frame and also marked $13. This clown looked even more dangerous than the first.

Sherry understood even better now the sense of humor behind this photo. But another one stuck in among the other products bothered her. Who would buy such a picture?  And who would think to buy two of them? They really were probably just a seasonal joke. But this was a store, where the purpose was to sell not display.

The raised room no longer bore any resemblance to its original purpose in the bank. It was filled with the most garish of furniture, posters, instruments, and clothes from the 1960s. That was her parents’ era, and visions of her lanky mother and father dressed in such clothes and sitting on such furniture arose in her mind. A blue Stratocaster in one corner reminded her of her father’s. He may not have had money for anything else, but he could afford that guitar. The pain of their divorce had lessened with the years, but Sherry felt sickened at herself daily that she could not make her own marriage work. How could she play a part in hurting a child as she and her sister had been?

She turned and walked out of the room but pulled up short to see the woman in the I CARE shirt standing at the foot of the stairs.

“Oh,” Sherry said.

“It’s ok. You’re welcome in.”

“I’m just still looking around.”

“I can give you a deal on anything in there. Guitars, whatever.”

Sherry felt her senses heighten. This woman seemed too close to her not only physically but mentally.

“I’m just looking.”

“Well, you’re welcome in.”

Sherry and the woman stood still, Sherry at the top of the stairs, the woman at the bottom.

“If you can excuse me,” Sherry said.

The woman did not move.

“Can I get by?”

The woman waited a moment then backed away. She had not been looking at Sherry’s face but instead at her stomach. It was difficult to see the woman’s eyes through the thick glasses.

Something inside Sherry told her to leave. But another part of her worried about being rude. A sign pointed to more booths being in the basement, so she headed that way.

As she put her foot on the first step, she saw another picture hanging in the stairwell. This one pictured two clowns. One leaned on the other. Both smiled hideously, their eyes murderous. Again a sticker with $13.

          It’s a bad joke if it is one, Sherry thought. Who would even take pictures like these? Who would dress up in those outfits and do that? And who would hang them up all over the store?

          Sherry hurried past the picture and down the stairs. She planned to swing through and back up and leave. At the foot of the stairs stood a mannequin wearing an old steel mill uniform and a mask that looked something like an octopus face. Its tentacles dropped down to its chest, and its eyes did not match with the mannequin’s so that where the shadow of the eyeholes ended slivers of painted blue eyes appeared in the dim light.

          A feeling came into Sherry’s chest of not being entirely in control nor of being quite safe. She hurried past the mannequin and around the basement. Here hung picture after picture of the clowns, sometimes one, sometimes two, in one case three in the photo. All smiled hideously, their hair splayed, their eyes hateful. In the back corner a fake skeleton lay in a bed.

          Is this an antique store or a haunted house? It would not have bothered her to go through the latter, but making a haunted house out of antique store seemed out of order, wrong.

          Back up the stairs she went, headed for the door. But the woman met her there.

          “I’ll make a deal with you, honey. I’ve got good deals here.”

          “Actually, I have to get going. I have to be somewhere.”

          “You haven’t seen everything.”

          Sherry tried to see the woman’s eyes through the thick glasses, but they were refracted into cartoonish largeness and seemed not to be focusing on anything. Sherry did not feel safe. She wanted to leave. But she could not figure out how to without being rude.

          “You’ve got to see the bargain safe,” the woman said. “Those are the best deals.”

          “I’m sorry, I really do have to go.”

          “Won’t take a minute, come on.”

          The woman actually took Sherry by the hand to lead her.

          I’ll do this and then go.

          The woman led her into another room and to the massive, thick, round door of the bank’s old vault. The door stood open, revealing shelves of merchandise inside.

          “Everything in there is marked way down. And better yet, if you buy one thing you get two more free. Doesn’t matter what the price tag is. You can buy something for a dollar and get something marked for twenty dollars free.”

          “That’s a good deal,” Sherry managed to say.

          “It’s a whopping good deal! And you’re welcome in.”

          The feeling that came over Sherry was not new. She had felt it several times in her life: when her parents had divorced and she had to go from one parent to the other the first time, on her first day of school and her first day moving into a dorm in college, when (despite denying it so many times since) she took the first step down the aisle in her wedding.

          “I really have only a minute,” Sherry said, weakness in her voice.

          “You can’t miss this deal,” the woman said, squeezing her hand. “You’ve been needing a good deal, I can tell.”

          The words jarred Sherry. What did the woman mean?

          “You need a change of fortune. And it’s ok in there, because it’s a safe. And that’s safe.”

          Safe, the word buzzed in Sherry’s ears. Then I’ll be in there. Or will I be inside there?

          “I—” Sherry started.

          “Go ahead. You’re welcome in.”

          Sherry took the first step. The next few she had no awareness of. Now she stood inside. She looked over the blue metal walls. The products on the shelves did not entice her, but her eyes followed them to the left, then to the right.

          That was enough. Time to go. She turned around to leave but stopped with a jag of ice in her chest. The wall of the vault was covered with those grainy black-and-white clown photographs. She recognized some of them from elsewhere in the store, but there were many more she had not seen. All of them glared down at her, their smiles speaking a silent language of hatred and crime.

          The lights went out, leaving a hundred rancorous smiling clown images photo-negatived in her mind. A sound of metal clashing followed, with a click.

          “Well, gosh darn the electricity’s out,” the woman said from the other side of the now closed and locked vault door.

          The atmosphere in here pulsated with aggression, anger, and something else Sherry could not quite define. The image of Flynn came to her mind. She could see his round face and his fresh little-boy haircut. She could see his little paunch under his t-shirt. His innocence struck her painfully against the evil of her surroundings. It seemed wrong even to think of him in this setting.

She felt weak against the resistance she felt she must put up. She needed to be strong, hard, vicious if necessary. She had to get out of here and back to Flynn. Her mind working against her will, she envisioned him playing with his father all those miles away right this minute.

          She heard another click. Thinking the door had opened, she reached out but felt only cold metal. Apparently some other door had opened. She heard a footstep and then another in the darkness. There was absolutely no light in here. She could see nothing. But she thought she could hear the slightest suspiration of breath.

          She felt herself deflate into hopelessness. She imagined Flynn’s life without her. Flynn having another mom. Flynn growing up with only a dim memory of her.

          The breathing grew louder. She felt a hand on hers.

Taylor Hagood is a writer, speaker, and educator based in south Florida. His publications include a story in Necrology Shorts, essays on Gothic New Orleans and the undead in the South, and the biography/true crime book, Stringbean: The Life and Murder of a Country Music Legend.