Chief sat up in the bed, trembling and dripping in sweat. The covers were tangled around his legs and there was a strong smell of piss. Rodger, the border collie, was barking at the foot of the bed.
“What’s going on?” his mother said, flying into the room and flicking on the light. Pink rollers poked out from beneath her pink head scarf. “Chief, are you okay? What’s going on?”
Chief felt the tears on his cheeks before he felt the choking cries that cut from his throat. A jumble of words exploded out of him as he tried to tell his mother what he had just seen.
The clown had been right there at the foot of the bed, smiling at him with a crooked crimson chasm of a smile. Chief could still see the knife and feel the blade as it went into his chest -- into his heart, into his lungs. His mother rushed to him and dropped to her knees beside the bed. She wrapped him in a comforting hug.
“It was just a dream, honey. Nothing but a nasty dream. Calm down. It’s okay.”
It took her a while to notice the piss, but when she only gave him a sad smile. Chief’s mother helped him climb out of bed and pull off the soiled sheets. With the dirty bedding was safely out of sight, she tucked Chief back in under a clean set of bedding. Rodger jumped back up to his spot at the foot of the bed and curled into a warm little ball at the boy’s feet.
“I told you those scary movies were a bad idea,” Chief’s mother chided him. “I told you that it was too late to be watching movies like that. I said you'd have nightmares.”
Her tone was loving. Chief nodded andwiggled down low beneath the covers as she pushed the edges in tight around him.
“Now go back to sleep,” she said in a soft coo, as she pulled the door from the latch and flicked over the light switch. “There’s nothing in here but that old dog and buckets full of my love, okay?”
Chief smiled as his mother flicked off the light and left the room, the door clicking behind her.
She’s right, he thought to himself as the darkness overcame him. Mama’s always right.
Mama wasn’t right, though.
The nightmares continued each night for weeks and weeks and each night they became more graphic and more gruesome in detail. Some nights Chief woke up in the yard, trembling and covered in small scratches.
“What do you see in your nightmares?” Chief’s mother asked him one morning as she drove him to school. It was warm out, but he was wearing a turtleneck to cover up the scrapes and the bruises. Dark bags hung under his eyes and his belt was pulled so tight that a long length of it hung down around his hips. Chief looked up at his mother with big empty eyes.
“It’s always the same thing,” he told her. “I go to bed and the clown's there, waiting for me. He’s not a clown, though. He’s a man. A man in a clown mask and he has a big knife. He laughs and he stabs me, over and over. Sometimes I run, but I never get far. He always catches me, and he always kills me.”
Chief’s mother frowned but she never took her eyes off the road. They drove in silence and she didn’t speak to him again until they reached the drop-off line.
“Let’s not tell any of your teachers about this, okay?”
Her voice sounded unsure, but Chief was so tired he didn't notice. He gave his mother a watery thin smile as he climbed out of the car.
“Sure, mom. I won’t tell anyone.”
He didn’t have to. That afternoon Chief’s teacher, Mr. Rutherford, called an urgent meeting with Chief's mother.
Betty Peterson didn’t show up until the school was all but abandoned and free of prying eyes. Chief was sitting alone in the corner, drawing, when she waltzed in with her cheap heels clicking and a cloud of dollar-store perfume billowing all around her.
“Ms. Peterson,” Mr. Rutherford said, rising from his desk and making his way to the door. The teacher held his hand out in front of him.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you at last. A pleasure.”
Chief's mother shook Mr. Rutherford's hand. Trig Rutherford was a small man, standing only a little taller than Chief's mother, with thick black glasses that made his eyes look oversized. A bald head sparkled above a speckled polyester blend sweater vest and matching oxford shirt tucked neatly into the pleats of his khaki slacks. The trousers folded neatly anove a pair of shiny penny loafers.
Next to him, Betty Peterson looked like a Hollywood starlet, her curled blonde hair and ruby red lips a shocker next to the teacher's pale facade.
“Thank you Mr. Peterson. I’m sorry for running so late. Single mother. It’s hard.”
The man fidgeted. No one liked to talk about the death of Eric Peterson quite like his own widow, who used it whenever she could to remind people that she did on her own what most people did in happy pairs.
Chief took a seat beside his mother. Mr. Rutherford perched on the edge of his desk and looked down over the thick rim of his glasses. He crossed his arms over his chest.
“Ms. Peterson, I’ll just get right down to it. I’m wondering if you’ve noticed any behavioural changes in your son?”
Betty gave Chief a sharp look. He kicked his feet and stared down hard at the shining linoleum. Chief’s mother looked back to the teacher.
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about. Behavioural changes?”
“Yes. In his moods and the way he interacts with others?”
Chief didn’t dare look up. Instead he kept his eyes glued to the floor and his head cupped in his hands.
“What are you talking about?”
Mr. Peterson sighed before shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
“Ms. Peterson, quite frankly, I’ve noticed that your son has become withdrawn at school. He’s falling asleep and he seems to have difficulty focusing. Chief is struggling to work with the other children, and the other children in the class seem to be...perterbed by him.”
Betty Peterson’s cheeks turned red and invisible waves off steam started billowing off of her. The last thing you wanted to tell Betty Peterson, mother of the year, was that her child was perterbing. She shot up from her chair, purse dangling from one arm, and pointed a finger right at Mr. Rutherford's chest.
“Are you telling me my kid is a weirdo?” She snarled.
Peterson recognized right away that he had overshot his bounds.
“No, no, no,” he said, throwing up his hands and waving them in defense. “I think you misunderstand me, Ms. Peterson.”
Something in his voice gave her pause and Chief’s mother resumed her seat seat, never taking her piercing glare off the mousey teacher. When Rutherford saw her relax, he leaned back and cleared his throat. When he spoke again, his voice was softer, more subdued.
“I understand that you and your son have suffered a great loss. I only wonder if perhaps Chief doesn’t need some extra help dealing with that loss. Losing a father is…”
“Let me stop you right there,” Betty interrupted. “Dont’ tell me how to raise my son, Mr. Rutherford.”
It was clear from her tone that she would brook no further argument.
“Is he passing this class, Mr. Peterson?”
“Y-y-yes,” stammered the teacher, taken aback once more by the woman's aggressive response. “He is.”
“Is he turning in all his homework?”
“Well, yes, but the last weeks have seen…”
“Does he have a passing grade?” Ms. Rutherford pushed again, planting her hands on the desk and rinching toward the cowering man. “Is he paassing this class?”
Rutherford's cheeks turned red and his jaw dropped in shock. He stammered something that Chief could not make out and reared back, as if trying to disappear.
“That’s good enough for me,” Betty Rutherford snapped, standing up and beckoning for Chief to get beside her. Mother and son stood beside one another like shadows, staring up down at Rutherford with blank gazes that said nothing and everything.
“Don’t call me again until his grades drop to a ‘fail’,” Chief's mother snapped as they made their way to the door. “And don’t you ever presume to tell me how to manage my son’s grief. You didn’t know his father and you sure as hell don’t know me.”
They ate chicken from a bucket that night and his mother didn’t even bother putting the box of biscuits in the oven.
Chief ate alone at the table as she paced the kitchen floor, the kinky pink wire of the telephone stretching in a frantic pulse across the narrow space of the kitchen as his mother snapped at her friend over the line.
“I’m not sending him back there, Charlene. That man is an idiot. He doesn’t know anything and he couldn’t find his head if his nose was sticking out of his ass.”
Chief bit down on another ear of corn and struggled to swallow the yellow mash. After a few more bites, he cleaned up and carried the leftovers to the kitchen island where he left them for his mother and her matching Tupperware containers. Chief dipped beneath the telephone wire and made his way down the hall to the quiet sanctuary of his room.
He still loved his bedroom despite the nightmares. The walls were painted blue and bordered with pictures of cowboys in all states of wild and frenzied action. A couple small posters of his favorite superheroes hung from the walls, and his bed lay perfectly made in the middle of it like a welcoming embrace. In the daylight, it was perfect. Only the shadows brought trouble.
Chief called Rodger in and shut the door behind them both, crawling up onto the bed beside the dog and settling down with a new book — a tale about pirates and the open sea.
When Chief woke, the room was dark. His mother's voice had gone quiet, but Rodger was still sleeping soundly at the foot of the bed. Chief lifted the book from his chest and reached for the bedside table, his brain filled with a fog.
He felt eyes before he saw anything else. The hair on his arms stood on end and his belly went cold. Rodger sat up and growled as his fur began to bristle.
“Mom? Mom!” Chief called out. He did not turn around. He couldn’t. He was frozen, one hand extended over the edge of the bed, the other clutching the book he had just placed on the bedside table.
A chill ran up his spine and the dog began to bark wildly.
Chief turned just in time to see the clown rushing at him, the knife wielded high in his fist. It fell over him in a flurry of stained striped silk. Rodger moved for the clown but was battered away. The knife plunged into Chief's chest over and over again as the blood gargled in his lungs and he struggled for air.
He tried to defend himself, but it was no use. Chief ripped and tore at the clown, but he was no match for his size and weight. Empty black holes stared down at him and smiling crimson lips split into an impossible chasm of hellfire above. Chief could feel his life slipping away as the clown stabbed him over and over again.
Somehow, in the chaos of it all, the knife slipped in the clown’s grasp and Chief felt his own small hand close around the handle. Without realizing, he began slashing at the clown, using every last bit of his strength to send his attacker back.
There was a scream, and the hot rush of blood and Chief felt the weight of the attacker disappear. There was another loud scream and a whine and Chief’s eyes flickered open.
The room was flooded in light and his mother was standing beside the bed, her eyes full of shock, gore splattered across the front of her nightgown. Chief felt something warm and looked down to see that he was kneeling on the bed in a pool of sticky red.
Rodger was beside him, twitching, a red hole gleaming bright and wide in his belly. Glancing down, Chief realized his hand was still clenched tightly around a bloody butcher knife. It was one of his mother’s knives, the red one with the silver handle.
“Oh my God, what have you done?” Betty Peterson whispered, looking at the scene in horror. “What have you done, Chief?”
Chief began to retch over the side of the bed. The clown was nowhere to be seen.
Chief and his mother stayed home the next day to clean up the mess.
He sat in the living room with an untouched bowl of cereal and watched the morning cartoons as his mother wrapped up the old border collie and hid him in a the shed behind the house. When it was dark, they would bury him in the yard, but until then his mother didn’t want the neighbors to see anything that might lead to questions.
When Rodger was dealt with, Chief's mother stripped down the bed once more and threw the bloodied linens into a large black bag. This bag she took out to the trunk of her car and locked away without saying so much as a word to her son.
Chief stared into the television screen. His brain was clogged, foggy. A feeling of sickness descended over him that he couldn't shake. The cheerful crackle of his cereal sounded absurd against the backdrop of horror that had become his life.
His mother showered and freshened herself up before coming to sit beside him in the living room.
“Well, kid. We’re going to have to make some plans.”
Chief looked up at his mother and his eyes were strange.
“Why don’t we start by you telling me what happened last night?”
Chief frowned. It had all been so real. He could still smell the blood and feel the weight and the heat of the clown on him. He could hear his breathing and feel the knife plunging into his body. Chief’s skin began to burn and tingle as he remembered the wounds, the wounds which had mysteriously disappeared. Chief began to cry, shaking all over with grief and terror.
“Shh. Shh. It’s going to be okay,” his mother said, reaching out and taking him in her arms. “We’re going to figure this out. Just tell me what happened. Why’d you take the knife into your room?”
“I didn’t!” Chief objected. “I promise that I didn’t! I was in my room reading and then the next thing I know…well, the clown was there and he was on top of me and stabbing me -- just like all the other times!”
His mother frowned and a dark shadow crossed over her. She suddenly looked very tired.
“Listen, baby. I know things have been hard since your dad passed away, but this has to stop. Why did you do that to Rodger? You can tell me. I love you, kid.”
She didn’t believe him.
Chief shook his head and let the cries come a little louder.
“Mom, it’s like I told you!”
His mother looked sadder than Chief had seen her since his father’s funeral. She let go of him, sinking back into the faded floral print of the couch. Her face him that she wished herself anywhere but that living room in that moment. She reached for the clicker and clicked the old television set off, filling the room with silence. They sat like that for a long moment before his mother gathered her thoughts and rose from the sofa.
“I want you to go pack a few things for a sleepover,” she told him, staring off with a strange look. “Get your coat and your toothbrush too. Hurry up. Go.”
It was an order.
Chief didn’t question his mother. Thirty minutes later, the two of them were making for the door with their bags in hand.
They climbed into the old Ford stations wagon and ambled out of the driveway, making their way down Brunswick Lane and onto the main road that led out of town. Chief’s mother didn’t speak a word as they passed through the town square or past the squat shape of the school. He was too tired and too scared to ask any questions, so they rode in silence. When they were clear of the town, his mother reached for the radio and flicked it over to the easy listening station.
The Cromville town sign appeared ahead, it’s yellow and blue paint bright in the afternoon sun. As they neared it, a truck pulled out behind them from a nearby service road, dark brown in color with a long white stripe that ran down both sides. It sped up behind them as they neared the sign, and when they were close enough to read the motto, it nudged them.
Chief’s mother lost control of the car, and the long wood-paneled station wagon spun onto the shoulder and then down into the darkness of the trees that lined the road on either side. Chief screwed his eyes shut. There was nothing but chaos as the sound of exploding metal and busting glass field his ears. He heard his mother scream and felt the car jolt back and forth as it tumbled down into the darkness of the forest floor. His skin burst as jagged splinters of wood and steel bored into him, and he felt the burn of the seatbelt as it tore into his neck.
The last thing Chief knew was a blast of heat and the sound of his mother’s voice as darkness overcame him.
We’re dead, he thought.
When Chief woke, he was in his bedroom. Everything was dark, and there was no noise except for the gentle clicking of the clock that sat on his bedside table.
Chief sat up, and winced as a shock of pain went lashing through his side. A loud giggle of glee split the silence, and Chief froze as he realized he was not alone.
“Poor little boy,” an icy voice whispered. “Poor little boy whose mommy doesn’t love him.”
He looked everywhere for the source of the voice, but he saw nothing but shadow. A numbing terror washed over him and Chief felt the sticky warmth of piss spread down his thighs. It was the clown. He knew it was the clown before he ever saw him.
The hulking shape came slinking out of the shadows, the knife wielded in his right hand and the same black-eyed mask with wild red hair stretched across his face. The monster cocked its head from one side to the other as it slowly approached the bed, giggles the only sound of its approach.
“Did you think you would get away, little boy? Did you think that you would leave me behind? You can’t leave Mr. Happy. You can’t leave Cromville.”
Chief tried to cry out, but the words were frozen in his throat. He threw up his hands, whether to signal for help or protect himself, he did not know. His bare arms were covered in dark bruises, welts and scrapes. The last thing he remembered was the spinning of the car and the sound of broken glass.
“And your mother’s screams. I’m sure you remember those too,” the clown giggled, as if reading his thoughts. “She’s dead, you know. I killed her first, this time. Left her in the kitchen. But not before I got what I wanted…”
The clown stopped a few feet from Chief’s bed and stared down. It raised the bloody knife to its lips and licked along the serrated edge. There was nowhere for Chief to go, no where for him to run. He was cornered. Behind him, there was nothing but wall and the clown stood between him and the only door. His eyes grew wide and terrified in the dark.
Chief looked wildly around the room in a desperate search for anything that might save him. He thought of Rodger and a surge of madness filled his chest. His brain stuttered back into gear and he found his voice as he unleashed an explosion of screams. Had the clown said this time?
“No crying here, little boy. It’s too late for that. Did you think you would leave this town? Did you think you would leave me?”
The clown dropped the knife, and as he did so a splatter of blood shot up the leg of his striped trousers. One white, shriveled hand reached for the mask and began to tug at the pallid white flesh of the eerie facade. Slowly, the macabre face folded away to reveal the real monster that was waiting underneath.
The bile came up in Chief’s throat and he retched violently all over the wrinkled top of his blankets. Images flooded his mind and the blood roared in his ears as his pulse raced.
Mr. Rutherford smiled wickedly and laughed so hard that his head fell back on his shoulders. He looked down at the young boy with a mad look, and pieces of memory began to fall into place.
The Mad Clown Murders the papers had called it forty-five years ago. It was the summer of 1954. Teacher kills 35, including himself, all in one night. It might have been drugs, they found a lot of them in his house, but mostly they think it was just the nerves. He was such a nervous man. Always twitchy around the kids he taught. No one ever expected him to do something like that, though. No one ever expects something like that. Slinking into houses in the middle of the night and slaying entire families? No. No one ever thinks of things like that.
Chief screamed over and over again as the memories came back to him. Mr. Rutherford laughed. Uncontrollable shaking came over him. No. No. No.
They had just finished dinner; Chief, his mother, his father and his two little brothers — George and Rodger they were called. One had blonde hair and the other red, just like their father’s. Mother had made Chicken Parmesan, her specialty, and father had joked about the local football team. They had all been smiling and mother had been wearing her rollers. What had Father been wearing? He couldn’t remember.
Chief had gone to bed that night but he hadn’t expected the clown to be there, waiting in the darkness with the knife. His child's brain had not been able to comprehend what was happening as the man in the mask had crawled up onto the bed and slit his little boy throat as easily as one sliced butter. Chief certainly hadn’t recognized Mr. Rutherford then, just as he hadn’t in the nightmares, as the madman had laughed and giggled with glee; his knife sliding in and out of the little boy’s corpse over and over again.
Chief screamed as the memories of his death flooded him, and a violent sobbing overtook him. Nineteen fifty-four. You’ve been dead for forty-five years.
“Cry, little boy. Cry,” Rutherford taunted, slithering closer. He picked up the knife again, but the mask was discarded and there was an evil look on his face. “Cry all you want, but it won’t do you any good. I’m your worst nightmare…for eternity!”
Chief looked up in horror as the shadow overcame him and the knife plunged into this throat.
“Mommy,” he whimpered. “Mommy, please. Help me.”