REIGN OF THE CLOUD CLOWNS by Xander Harrington
Kate Carver is just putting the finishing touches on dinner when the alarm begins to sound. It rises in a shrill, strident wail, causing the house’s windows and cabinets to shake tremulously and the neighbourhood dogs to howl.
She pokes her head out of the kitchen. James, her husband, sits silently at their glass dinner table, face set in a mask of agitation as he tries in vain to read the sports section.
Kate lets out a sigh of impatience. “What the hell is it now?”
James closes the newspaper and sets it down on the table. He cocks his head slightly to his left, concentrating. “Well, it’s in repeating patterns of six,” he says, taking off his reading glasses to rub at the bridge of his nose. “What’s six again?”
Kate taps her chin with an oven-mitted hand. She can’t quite recall what six rings represent. There’s a different pattern for every known, unknown, catalogued and uncatalogued threat, and with so many these days, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep them all straight in her head.
“Is it air squids again?”
James shakes his head. “Nah. Air squids are five rings.”
She taps her chin in contemplation some more, keen nose detecting an unacceptable burning smell coming from the direction of the stove. “Christ, not powerline spiders. Those things make such a mess.”
“Those would be eight rings.”
Kate rolls her eyes. “Of course they would.”
The siren cycles through six more ear-splitting rings. Stops. Begins anew.
“It’s not acid beetles again, is it?” Kate says. “God, I hate those things. Fuckers melted the new tyres on the Volvo last year. After I just had them put on.”
“Yeah, they suck. But no. Those would be seven rings. Plus, they’re out of season.”
“Hobo zombies? I noticed some of the trash ripped up this morning.”
She racks her brain for a long moment. “Laser pigeons?”
“Government wiped them out last summer, remember?”
Kate’s just about to confirm that she does, indeed, remember the much-reported demise of the laser pigeons when the oven timer goes off. Dashing into the kitchen, muttering, “shit, shit, shit,” she throws open the oven door and uses a fork to pull up a corner of the tinfoil covering the baked tilapia.
Just as she’s bending down to take the baking dish off the rack, there comes a thump from overhead. She stops, closes the oven door, creeps back to the living room. Her husband meets her gaze the second she steps in.
“Did you hear that?” he yells over the still-blaring siren.
Kate nods slowly, her eyes drifting up to the ceiling. Something is up there, scrabbling along the shingled rooftop of their house.
James stands up from the table and walks over to the living room window. Beyond the glass, the sky is warm with the orange glow of settling dusk, the shadows stirring in the empty streets. He nears the window but doesn’t go directly up to it.
The siren stops abruptly, leaving in its wake a chorus of barking dogs and wailing car alarms. Down the street, someone angrily shouts “Jesus fuck!” at the top of their lungs. Probably Ted Rothman, whose house is right next to one of the Emergency Preparedness loudspeakers the government sent teams of men to install up and down the street.
Kate and James stand alert in the stillness that follows, watching out of the window for any sudden movement, listening closely for the slightest sound.
Something rustles in the bushes beneath the window. They both take a step back.
Another rustle. Another thump on the roof above.
There comes a shrill, musical laugh from somewhere close by. Then another. Deeper and huskier. It sounds like it’s coming from their front porch.
James’ eyes widen with mounting dread. “Shit.”
A sigh whistles past Kate’s lips. “Goddamn it.”
Together they step toward the windowpane and look skyward.
And sure enough, there they are, right on cue.
The cloud clowns.
Coming down slowly from a bank of grey clouds, balloons and umbrellas facilitating their steady and inexplicable descent. There are at least two dozen of them dotting the sky over the neighbourhood, each more garishly costumed than the last; each head sporting a frenzy of colourful hair; each foot garbed in a floppy, oversized shoe.
Even at a distance, Kate and James can hear the peals of their foul chorus of laughter.
Within scant seconds the sounds of hysteria and chaos begin to manifest up and down the street: breaking glass, gunshots, alternating screams of terror and agitation. A few doors down, someone fires up what sounds like a chainsaw. Next door, the Finney’s garage door stutters open, a pair of staticky speakers within pounding out the first chords of Alice Cooper’s “No More Mr. Nice Guy.”
A Hemi pickup truck comes screaming down the road in a cloud of exhaust smoke, its occupants hooting and shouting from open windows and firing guns into the air with frat boy abandon, chanting “Clown hunt! Clown hunt! Clown hunt!”
James turns away from the window. “I’ll deal with this.”
Kate’s eyes go stormy for a moment. She jabs his chest with an index finger, hard. “No. Sit down.”
James just stares back at her. “Huh?”
“You heard me, mister. Sit down. We haven’t had a night off together in months, and frankly, it’s starting to piss me off.”
“So here’s what’s going to happen. Firstly, you’re going to have a nice sit and enjoy your paper. Then we’re gonna eat this fine meal that I’ve prepared for us. After that, we’re gonna relax, have a few drinks together, maybe even get laid. With no interruptions. Is that understood?”
James’ eyes register surprise (and a slight amount of arousal) at her sudden taking of the reins. He capitulates in his own manner (silently) and sits down. Kate bends down and pecks him lightly on the nose, turns to exit the living room. “Oh,” she says before stepping out. “Would you be a doll and turn off the oven for me? Thanks.”
A moment later, she has the door to the hallway closet open and is rooting around inside, tossing aside shoes, umbrellas, a box full of loose Christmas decorations, a Keurig coffee machine still in its box, a plastic jack-o-lantern. What she’s looking for is at the bottom of the mess, hidden under a stack of quilts made by her mother over the years. Kate tosses the quilts aside to reveal a rectangular box. She unlatches it and opens it with a creak.
Inside, a Remington 870 tactical shotgun glints up at her, courtesy of James’ father, a now-retired SWAT team leader. She picks up the gun and the box of ammo next to it and loads the 870 with six shells. Her hands are shaking slightly as she goes—even though she knows her way around the gun by now, a curious and destabilizing charge passes through her every time she handles it, and probably always will.
Another thump overhead. Two or more pairs of feet stomping around. A shrill laugh.
Kate pockets the remaining shells, pumps the shotgun and closes the door before heading to the garage. Inside, next to a pile of firewood and the recycling, she spots the three wine bottles she set aside after the last siege. There are dirty rags stuffed into the bottle tops, spilling over crudely like cloth tongues. She bends down and grabs them, going a little dizzy from the petroleum-rich smell they give off.
Back in the hallway now, she pads softly toward the front door with the shotgun in one hand, and the wine bottles tucked awkwardly under her other arm. The pane of glass to the left of the door is frosted, impossible to see out of, so she reaches for the doorknob, turns it a half-rotation.
Giggles and mutterings are coming from the other side of the door, soft scuffling sounds. They know she’s there; they’re just waiting for her to come out.
The goddamn cloud clowns.
All I wanted was a nice, relaxing night in, she thinks to herself.
Heartbeat primed with adrenaline, she hones in on a cosy image of herself and James on the couch when this is all over; legs entwined, a bowl of popcorn between them, a nice, toothless rom-com flickering inanely on their TV.
The shit you have to go through to get a little peace and quiet these days.
Kate throws the door wide and steps out onto the porch. Night has descended fully now.
The first one she lays eyes on is shambling up their walkway like a drunk, its green wig matted with blood; red, white and blue makeup smeared and running. The polka-dotted jumpsuit it wears is torn in the midsection, revealing a hairy, bulbous stomach that jiggles with each step it takes. It has a fat cigar clenched between two rows of charcoal teeth, its end frayed but still puffing smoke. When it spots her, its grease-painted mouth turns up in a suggestive smirk. Kate squeezes the trigger tightly.
And blows its head clean off.
Bone, brain matter and what looks like shimmering bits of confetti rain down on the lawn. The corpse takes a stumbling half-step, twitches violently, hits the ground.
The next one she trains her sight on is outfitted with a colourful plaid jacket and a flower-capped fedora, its mouth drooping low in a dopey red frown. It comes at her with the speed of a frenzied animal, a wooden mallet speckled with dried blood raised in one white-gloved hand.
Kate blasts its jaw off, leaving it to stare at her silently with sad, wide puppy eyes, viscera dripping from its obliterated maw. She fires again, making a hole in its chest wide enough to deposit a basketball in.
A thud of feet hitting the ground, a quick flash of movement to her left. Kate whirls just in time to see another one coming straight for her. This one’s wearing chequered black and white overalls, its flaky black and white makeup like that of a deranged mime. She can see no visible weapons in its hands. Not that it needs any—its teeth have been filed with precision to sharp points.
Kate raises the shotgun.
The clown smiles broadly.
The clown licks at its lips.
Flame erupts from the barrel of the shotgun. The blast takes off most of the clown’s right shoulder, exposing a shattered collarbone that juts out at an odd angle. She fires again, and the clown’s face vanishes in an eruption of confetti and red streamers. It hits the ground in a broken heap.
Kate walks over to the corpse, spits on it, raises the shotgun to her shoulder and at the approaching forms of three more clowns. No. Four more. Five. Six.
She backs up slowly, never taking her eyes from them, then turns and dashes back to the comparative safety of the porch. A row of shadows moves steadily toward her across the lawn. She fumbles in her pocket for a lighter, finds one in the back pocket of her jeans and hopes, prays that it’s not empty. She’d given up smoking three months earlier and will give herself a swift kick in the ass for the effort if the damn thing is dry.
The clowns are giggling excitedly at her fumbling, not in the least bit fazed by the sight of their fallen compatriots sprawled across the lawn; to Kate, they sound like a pack of eager, sugar-fuelled children moving in on a birthday piñata.
She picks up one of the wine bottles, thumbs the lighter, touches the rag with flame. The glass heats up instantly in her hands. Raising the bottle over her right shoulder, she aims down her line of sight at the nearest clown and tosses it with a wobbly overhand pitch.
The clown goes up like a Roman candle, sputtering smoke and running around the lawn in a silent pantomime of panic. In its flailing, it collides head-on with a comrade, spreading the flame. Together they scramble and run, fall, claw their way across the lawn in an attempt to smother their involuntary immolation.
The others begin to back away, eyeing one another in disbelief, their laughter reduced to a few half-hearted titters.
Kate lights the second bottle and tosses it with an underhanded pitch high into the air. There is a moment of stillness before it hits the ground, exploding in a luminous ball of flame and taking three clowns with it. She watches, smiling, as they flail about in the spreading conflagration. The others begin their full retreat in earnest, ascending back into the black sky by balloon and umbrella, nary a chuckle among them.
The bulk of the Carver’s well-manicured lawn is now on fire. Flames lick at the trunk of their Japanese maple, at the wheels of James’ Kia parked in the driveway. But Kate doesn’t worry for long. She knows the always expedient fire department will soon arrive, and with them, the police and a slew of anonymous government agents. The latter, usually wearing black sunglasses and expensive-looking J. Edgar suits, will ask the usual questions—How many were there? Can you describe their behaviour to us? Did they exhibit any strange abilities we should be aware of? Do you have a permit for that gun, ma’am?—but will otherwise leave them alone when they realize that she and her husband have little in the way of new or vital information to offer. It’s all so pat to her by now, the whole process. Routine, really.
Kate shakes her head at the smouldering figures lying on her lawn and turns to head inside. She stops when she sees the Finneys, Mark and his son Blake, standing next door on their own lawn. “Mr. Nice Guy” is still blasting from their garage at full volume. They must have it set on repeat, she figures—a sort of rock’n’roll battle cry or call to arms.
Mark Finney has a foot pressed to the chest of a struggling clown laying in the grass. Blake—who’s wearing his father’s oversized motorcycle helmet—is poised with an axe raised above his head, ready to deliver the killing blow.
“Nice and swift, kiddo,” Mark says. “Just like I showed you. Put it right in the bastard’s brain.”
“Sure, dad,” Blake says in his high pubescent voice. Always eager to please the old man, that Blake.
The elder Finney spots Kate and waves at her. She waves back. The younger Finney brings the axe down, burying it in the clown’s forehead with a wet thwack.
It’s sad, Kate muses, how quickly the intolerable, the absurd, the unfathomable, and the horrific just becomes another regular part of your everyday life. Like driving to work in bumper-to-bumper traffic or doing the laundry or taking the garbage out to the kerb every Tuesday. Just another something you did out of routine, not because you want to, but because you have to.
“Alright,” she hears Mark instruct his son, “Cut him off at the neck this time, just to be sure.”
She heads back inside, the heat from the fire intense at her back. She closes the door, locks it, lets out a breath.
James is still sitting at the dinner table when she steps in. He looks up at her with a smile.
“Yes,” Kate says, crossing the room to her husband. She plops down in his lap and throws her arms around his neck. In the flickering light from the flames lapping at their garden, she kisses him softly on the cheek.
“Now,” she says, resting her head on his shoulder, “Where were we?”