“Not real enough!” Pennywise wailed. “The little brat said I wasn’t real enough! I build a house out of their deepest fears and that’s not real enough?!”
“Maybe you should’ve tried dancing for ‘em,” Mike suggested. Pennywise had done that at the last holiday company party. Mike had tried to spray his eye with disinfectant to clear out the sight.
“I did dance!” Pennywise blew its nose into the ruffles around its wrist. “And I had balloons and leprosy and werewolf claws and everything! All that effort, but did those little ingrates care? No!”
Huh. No wonder scream production was falling; kids today must really be made of strong stuff if they could put up with that dance. “Ever thought about changing your look?” Mike asked. “Something a little less like you got dressed in your grandma’s attic?”
Pennywise’s yellow eyes were glowing as it scowled, which might be more intimidating if not for the makeup running down its face.
“Look,” Sulley said. “Every scarer has kids lose their fear at some point in his career. It’s not a reflection on you, it’s–”
“Lose their fear?” Pennywise howled. “They hit me with a baseball bat! Me! I am the eater of worlds!”
Mike’s head throbbed. “Why don’t you take some leave?” he offered. “Relax, put your clown shoes up. Then when you go back–”
“I’m never going back there! Not until those little philistines have grown up!”
“Here.” Celia knelt down on the floor where Pennywise was huddled in a pile of self-pity and greasepaint. “Roz has a new assignment for you, an easy one. It’s a little boy stuck in a hotel for the season with nobody but his parents. Do you feel up to it?”
Sniffling, Pennywise took the slip of paper and nodded.
Pennywise trudged out of the door to the Overlook Hotel.
No, not trudged. Squished.
The clown was covered head to pom-pomed toes in what Mike deeply hoped was strawberry syrup.
It didn’t smell like strawberry syrup.
“Never again,” the clown said, leaving a trail of red footprints in its wake.
Sulley stared. “What happened–”
And then it was gone, squelching off to the lockers.
“Hey, Sulley,” Mike said.
“When Pennywise got flooded with–with all that? You think the clown floated?”
The door shattered as Pennywise came flying out. Splinters rained down as the clown hit the floor, skidding to a halt just in front of Sulley’s feet. Its head lolled to the side, eyes half shut.
“Pennywise?” Sulley knelt down. “What happened?”
Mike grabbed his arm. “Don’t touch it! What if it’s contaminated?” He hopped up and down, waving his arms over his head. “Roz! Hey! Roz!”
“What is it, Wazowski?” Roz slithered over, glaring at him over her glasses.
Mike pointed to what remained of the door. “Whatever’s in there just turned this Jack-in-the-box into a ragdoll! Where does it lead?”
Roz flipped through the forms on her clipboard. “White bungalow,” she muttered. “Home to a–” She paused, frown deepening. “A teenage girl? That door should have been shredded years ago.”
“Well, it is now,” Sulley said.
“Someone didn’t fill out their paperwork. And I’m going to find out who.” Roz slid away, leaning a trail of slime that Celia nearly fell on as she ran over.
“Is Pennywise hurt?”
“Its eyes are facing in different directions,” Sulley reported.
“That’s normal,” Mike pointed out.
“And it’s drooling all over.”
“I think its teeth might be knocked loose.”
“All right, that’s a new one.”
The clown moaned, rolling onto its side and clutching its over-sized head.
“Pennywise!” Celia bent down. "Are you all right?”
“What happened?” Sulley added.
“She…” Another groan, and Pennywise rubbed its temples. “She threw me.”
Everyone scrambled back. “She touched you?” Mike asked. And here they were breathing the same air as the diseased clown.
“No! She just stared! She didn’t even move to do it!”
Mike looked at his friends over the clown’s huddled form. “This is a concussion, right? This is what a concussion sounds like?”
Celia shrugged, standing up. “I’ll get a medic.”
“I told it to take a vacation.” Mike watched the clown whimpering on the floor. “But does anyone listen to me? No.”
“Nice going, buddy,” Mike said. “You’re way ahead of schedule and – is that a car door?”
Sulley paused halfway through closing his own door. “What?”
“There.” Mike pointed across the hall, where Pennywise had just vanished behind a pale yellow automobile door. “We’re scaring in cars now?”
“It’s a special circumstance for Pennywise,” Sulley explained lowly. “They’re trying to give it simple jobs.”
Pennywise’s performance had been steadily slipping since the incident with the baseball bat. There were whispers in the break room that it was on work probation. Not that the clown was doing itself any favors. Just last week a human girl had set it on fire, and before that it claimed everyone it was scheduled to scare appeared to have died of some plague.
“That clown’ll find a way to get itself run over,” Mike muttered. “Just you watch.”
But when it came limping back through the door, it was sporting bite marks, not tire treads.
“Dogs!” Pennywise shrieked. “It’s my job to frighten children! I refuse to share my spotlight with dogs!”
The clown stomped away. One of the pom-poms fell off its shirt and onto the floor, but Pennywise didn’t look back.
“With that sparkling personality,” Mike couldn’t help but say, “I can’t imagine why the dog didn’t play nice.”
“You’ll do fine,” Celia soothed.
“You’ve got this, buddy.” Sulley rubbed the clown’s shoulders.
Pennywise didn’t answer. It was so stiff it was almost shaking, and it ran its tongue over its shiny new front teeth. The real ones had been knocked out by kids in a cornfield or something. Mike couldn’t remember if that was before or after the clown claimed it had been stabbed by a zombie baby.
“We’re all rooting for you,” he said. Which was true. No one wanted to see another monster fail. Even if the monster wore pantaloons and was prone to monologues.
Pennywise nodded. It swallowed hard, then rushed forward and threw open the airplane door.
“It used to be in the running for the All Time Scare Record,” Celia said.
“It happens sometimes.” Sulley shook his head. “A monster falls off the horse and just can’t get back in the saddle.”
The door flew open. It hadn’t even been a minute. Pennywise fell out. Its clothes were shredded, hair torn out in patches, and Mike could see scraps of fabric and strands of hair under the clown’s nails.
“Pennywise?” Sulley asked.
The clown was shaking on the floor. There were tears streaming down its face.
“What happened?” Celia offered it a tissue. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s–” Pennywise shuddered violently. “It’s eternity in there.”
There was a moment of silence. No one knew what to say to that.
“Anyone want coffee?” Mike asked. “I’ll get the clown decaf.”
“Are you stopping by Pennywise’s retirement party?”
“Yeah.” Randall shut his locker. “Not for long, but – wait, retirement party? I thought it was a baby shower.”
“Not according to the email from the social services committee,” Sulley said. “Waternoose got it a watch and everything.”
“Celia said it’s not having the shower until after it’s laid the eggs.” Mike had heard her talking it over with some girlfriends. “Something about looking less bloated in photos.” Why a clown that dressed like a doily cared about being photogenic, Mike wasn’t sure.
“Wonderful.” Randall scowled. “So everyone else will have retirement cards and I’ll be the jerk with a box full of booties.”
“Pennywise will love them,” Sulley said. “Besides, when you’re having hundreds of eight-legged babies, you’ll always need more shoes. Who’s its husband, anyway?”
Randall shrugged. “Scarer in the next division over. Never caught his name. Wears a top hat?”
“The one that sounds like a velociraptor?”
“Yeah, that one.”
Mike had seen the guy around. He also dressed like a relic. Maybe the happy couple had met while clothes-shopping in an antiques store.
“I’m just glad it decided to focus on the kids,” Sulley said. “I was worried it was headed for a nervous breakdown.”
“I heard it was thinking of switching to the Records Department,” Randall said.
“With Roz?” Mike shook his head. “Wow. Whatever it was seeing through those doors really must have been indescribably horrible if Pennywise was willing to do that.” He shuddered. “Come on, if we don’t get there soon they’ll run out of cake.”