A cold, heavy rain pelted the circus performers as they fought their way toward a remote, barren section of the cemetery.
Upon reaching their destination, they formed a circle and bowed their heads against the blustery winds. There they stood silently and listened dutifully to a local preacher while he delivered a dull, generic eulogy at the head of an open grave—an unusually large open grave.
Chris Keller did his best to put on a brave face, but there was a dampness on the young acrobat’s cheeks that had nothing to do with the raindrops. He wiped a shaking hand over his face and sniffed his nose.
Fiona, the "Incredible Half-Man, Half-Woman," reached over and handed him a handkerchief. Keller’s love for Bonnie had been no secret, and it was obvious to all that the Fat Lady’s sudden death had dealt him a devastating blow.
A premature darkness settled in on the mourners as the preacher droned on, ignoring the disagreeable elements of the weather. Keller’s handkerchief was soon soaked, and other members of the traveling Oswald Circus Troop began to fidget restlessly.
Chucky Pancamo took yet another sip out of his hip flask and promptly hiccuped. He may have been billed as the world’s strongest man, but he wasn’t the brightest, nor the most sensitive. Fiona flashed him a disapproving look, but Pancamo shrugged and mumbled, "A man's gotta do somethin' to keep warm."
"And so, dear Lord," the preacher finally concluded, "please open the pearly gates of your divine kingdom, and make room for Bonnie, your newest angel."
"Yeah, a lotta room," Pancamo snorted, a little louder than he'd probably meant to. "'Cos when Bonnie sat around the Big Top, she sat around the Big Top."
Pancamo chuckled at his own joke, oblivious to the shocked looks thrown his way, including an especially threatening one from Keller.
The grouping began to break up. Ryan O’Reily, the "Amazing Sword-Swallower," walked over to Keller and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Bonnie was a beautiful woman," he said sympathetically. "She had a smile that could light up a room."
Pancamo laughed. "That's 'cos she was the same size ’s the sun!" he slurred.
O’Reily glared at him. "Shut it, Chucky," he warned.
Keller stayed silent, but his jaw clenched.
The blocs of mourners then shifted as Vern Schillinger, the head clown, made his way forward, followed closely by his creepy clown posse. He carried a trio of blood-red roses in his hand, their color a perfect match for his menacing eyes. The delicate bouquet marked a sharp contrast to his eerie countenance, one accentuated by the make-up that he and his fellow clowns wore continuously, night and day, without fail.
Under the manipulative lights of the Big Top, in front of a populace of innocent spectators, the clowns appeared run-of-the-mill. But away from that exposed environment, left to their own devices, they mysteriously transformed into creatures with a more sinister appearance and bearing.
Suffice it to say, none of the other circus performers had more to do with the clowns than necessary.
Vern gently tossed the roses into the open grave before slowly turning around to face Keller. "My sympathies," he drawled.
Keller nodded his head curtly in acknowledgment.
Pancamo belched loudly, momentarily stealing Vern’s attention. When Vern returned his gaze to Keller, his red eyes focused on the narrowed slits of Keller’s blue ones.
The hint of a smile tugged at the corner of Vern's mouth. "Bonnie had a big heart," he remarked.
At that, Pancamo lost it, roaring with laughter. He swayed forward and nearly fell down into the fresh pile of muddy earth at their feet. As he struggled to regain his footing, Pancamo took a breath and blurted, "You got that right, Bozo! Every part of Bonnie was BIG!"
Keller's nostrils flared, and his hands curled into fists. He took a quick step toward Pancamo’s unsteady form but was pulled back by a surprisingly firm grip on his arm.
"Just ignore him, Sweetie," Fiona quietly instructed.
Then O’Reily grabbed his other arm, and Keller was quickly led back through the cemetery, away from the gravesite—away from Bonnie, away from Vern, away from Pancamo and his boorish behavior.
Vern's blood-red lips spread into a wide smile as he watched Keller go.
*~* Later That Night *~*
Back inside his tent, Pancamo rolled over in bed and groaned. His head was splitting apart, and his bladder was about to explode.
Somehow, he managed to sit up. With a great deal of effort, he swung his feet over the edge of his cot and onto the floor. With even greater effort, he forced himself to stand. He slowly put one foot in front of the other and staggered outside.
The troop latrine, located at the other end of the campsite, seemed awfully far away. A promising cluster of bushes beckoned from the edge of the nearby woods. Pancamo made his way toward it instead.
As his brain focused on the prospect of relief, his clouded vision neglected to notice the silent shadow that followed him.
The circus campsite faded away into the background as Pancamo stumbled into the woods, gratefully greeting the hallowed bushes. He planted his feet into the ground, lowered his pants, and started to go. He closed his eyes and smiled as he drew a contented sigh.
It was the last breath Chucky Pancamo would ever take.
A hand slapped over his mouth and squeezed tight. His feet were knocked out from under him, and his body was dragged by its heels back, back, into the dark recesses of the woods. Pancamo’s own strong hands grabbed and pulled at the arms restraining him until he felt a sudden, sharp pain pierce his side. He went limp as he was thrown down onto a bed of damp autumn leaves.
Pancamo looked up and saw in surprise the crazed eyes of Chris Keller.
Keller quickly knelt down over him, giving him no time to protest. Pancamo caught a fleeting glimpse of the blade from a large butcher knife as it was raised up high into the moonlight. Then, in one swift movement, Keller brought the knife straight down, right into Pancamo’s heart.
Pancamo possessed a brief moment of awareness as he saw his own blood spraying everywhere—on Keller’s clothes, on Keller’s face, on the knife that Keller had once again raised high above his head. They locked eyes, and Keller hissed, "For Bonnie."
Keller plunged the knife into Pancamo’s chest a second time, then sat and silently watched Pancamo’s eyes as they turned blank.
Keller smiled as he withdrew the knife from Pancamo’s chest. Taking deep, steadying breaths, he waited for the adrenaline rush to subside. He sat hunched over Pancamo’s lifeless body, thinking of Bonnie, her sweet kisses, her warm embrace…
… until his reflections were broken by a nearby rustling sound, coming from within the surrounding woods.
Keller instantly jumped to his feet, just in time to see Vern Schillinger emerge from the woods' shadowy depths. Vern made his way toward him in his usual disquieting manner, his eerie clownish aura as unnerving as always.
Keller held his bloody knife out in front of him. "You stop right there, Vern," he instructed. "This whole thing was between me’n Pancamo. You didn’t see nothin’, got it?"
"On the contrary, Chris," Vern said with a smile. "I see everything."
Keller decided to switch tactics. "It was self-defense. Pancamo attacked me first."
Vern shook his head as he drew closer. "No, it wasn’t. It was pre-meditated, cold-blooded murder."
The shadows behind Vern shifted, and more clowns started to stream out of the woods.
Of course, thought Keller. Where Vern goes, so does his horde of creepy-ass clowns.
The other clowns gathered around Vern, and together they all began to walk in Keller’s direction. He held his knife out a little farther.
"You’re just like us, now, Chris," Vern told him. "You’re one of us."
"The fuck I am," Keller retorted. "I’m a skilled acrobat, flyin’ through the air with the greatest of ease." He waved his knife in the air. "I ain't no fuckin’ freaky clown."
But Vern’s gang of clowns continued to walk toward him. "One of us," they all said in unison, repeating Vern’s words. "One of us."
Keller started walking backwards. "Pancamo got what was comin’ to him, you know that. Now, just leave me alone!"
"You don’t understand," Vern explained. "You didn’t commit just any murder. You broke the Oswald Circus Code. You’ve murdered a fellow performer."
The clowns closed in on him. "One of us! One of us!"
"Stay back!" Keller yelled. He felt the blood drain from his face.
"None of us were clowns, either, at the start," Vern said. "But at some point, each one of us murdered a circus member. And we changed."
"ONE OF US! ONE OF US!"
Vern’s evil grin spread from ear to ear. "And now, you’ll change too."
Keller stumbled and fell to the ground. The clowns surrounded him, all chanting, "ONE OF US!"
Then Vern snapped his fingers, and the chanting stopped. A large hand mirror magically appeared in Vern’s fist. He moved forward, bent down over Keller, and held the mirror out in front of Keller’s face.
Keller look back at his reflection. His beautiful ocean-blue eyes had turned red, and his closely-cropped black hair had been replaced by tufts of bright orange fluff. His face was now covered in white makeup, save for the jet-black markings that surrounded his eyes and mouth.
Keller’s eyes went wide, and panic coursed through him as he furiously wiped a hand over his face.
Vern tilted his head to the side and chuckled. "Don’t bother trying. It doesn’t come off," he told him. "You get it now? You’re one of us!"
All the clowns clapped and cheered.
As Vern’s words finally sank in, Keller tried to scream. But the sound that came out of his mouth was the high-pitched giggle of a clown, a sound that reverberated off the trees before fading away into the cool, damp air of Halloween night.