The clown, the clown of Hartford Downs,
Give him a smile, he’ll come on around.
My name is Charles Pierce, and I hunt clowns.
Allow me to explain.
I didn’t mind clowns, as a kid. Never had a phobia, or anything. They didn’t bother me—I just thought they were stupid. I’m not much of a horror fan, either, so I missed out on that whole thing. Mystery was more my jam: Bogart, Spade, things like that. I ate that stuff like candy. Once I got beat on for showing up at an elementary-school costume party in what looked (to my classmates) like a dress. It was actually a felt detective trench-coat my mom made for me, each button taped on with care because we didn’t have any thread. The other party guests cut a hole in the caboose area, and I lost my fedora when they crammed it down a sidewalk drain. That was the last time I trusted any kids from Hartford.
Which, as it turned out, was something of a blessing. I could have fallen in with a bad crowd: we had junkies as young as fourteen in my area, and teenage pregnancy swept through the town every year or so, straining the welfare system and inviting shame and scorn on surprised young moms. Instead of all that, I fell in with a douchebag named Dicky Gonzalez. He was, as they say, the better of two evils.
We called him Dicky because he was, well, just sort of a dick. The kind of guy who would slash tires not because of some grudge, but because he was bored. The guy who cheated on every girlfriend he’d ever had, who thought anonymous bomb threats were a funny way to ring in the new year. By the time I met him, he was held behind so many grades that his Adam’s apple had an Adam’s apple—or maybe that was just a tumor from his pack-a-day Marlboro habit. He was in such deep shit with school faculty he’d basically become the custodial staff, doing labor and community service almost round the clock. This consisted of covering up or scraping away Dicky-related crime scenes, of which there were many. Sometimes, nabbed vaping behind the gym or caught looking at porn in the library, I was forced to join him. I didn’t mind. It beat juvie, which is where we both would have gone if the school wasn’t so set on redeeming every deadbeat who walked through the damn door. By rights, both of us should have gotten expelled. Good thing the principal was such a sucker.
One thing about Dicky, though: he had a hell of a work ethic. A scrapper and an anarchist, he was suddenly quiet when you gave him a mop and bucket, entering a state of complete focus. Maybe it was some kinda Zen thing, or maybe he was just putting all his limited brain cells into the work. Me, I had plenty of brain cells, but was determined to kill them fast as I could. I’d skipped a few grades before high school, but on my very first day, I had a teenage epiphany. I saw the way kids were herded like steer to slaughter. And I was just a scummy teen like so many other scummy teens–listless, jobless, hopeless. I was going nowhere, but unlike most of my classmates, I actually knew it. I had woken up, while all the sheeple around me were just going through the motions. I knew exactly how hopeless my life was.
“Are you kidding? You’re just getting started.” Dicky said as we washed an enormous spray-painted phallus off the principal’s office door. “I’ve got big plans for you, Chip.”
“Dude, it’s Charles. You know it’s Charles. We talked about this.”
“Whatever, Chip. Whatcha doing this weekend, bro?”
Most of the time, it went like that. I don’t know what world Dicky lived in, but it sure wasn’t the one the rest of us saw. I got proof of that in October, when the school was practically jizzing itself over the Halloween Scare-A-Thon. Every year the school made a spectacular failure of dancing with itself to “Cotton-Eye Joe” and “Monster Mash.” I wasn’t planning to attend, given my party-based traumas, but deep inside my hormonal body there was a loneliness building, some kind of powerful and dangerous vacuum that threatened to drive me crazy. My façade of “Don’t Give A Fuck” could keep parents and teachers from reaching me, but it didn’t do jack-squat about that pain. Of all the problems I pretended to have, that was the real one.
Of course, my only friend was quick to rescue me from this… by putting me in more danger. Dicky slipped his plans to me like butts to a recovering smoker. He was thinking about some mischief on Halloween. Thinkin’ about tearin’ shit up, getting freaky wid it. I was down.
I didn’t go along just to fit in. It’s important for you to know that. One of the things I liked about Dicky was that there was no “cool.” He had no status quo, no social bar to struggle for. He might deem something the height of awesomeness, then shit all over it the next day. It was refreshing. He had no standards, and as far as I was concerned, that made for a perfect friendship. It was no coincidence that I kind of had a thing for him. But I wasn’t going to let that out. The only thing worse than being an outsider in Hartford? Being a fag and an outsider.
“So what’s the big plan, Dicky?”
He dropped his cig in a bucket of mop water. “I need some help with the Scare-A-Thon.”
I winced at the mention of the party. I’d successfully avoided thinking about it, and had already had an excuse in mind. Costumes were mandatory, but I hadn’t been able to scrape together an outfit—so I was just going to stay home. Again. “I don’t think so, bro. I’m not even gonna be there.”
“Me neither.” That got me curious. I studied Dicky’s thin hatchet-face. He was inscrutable, a mask of belligerent indifference marred with patches of greasy acne. “I got a little tradition I need you to help me with. On the Downs.”
The Downs were the woods behind the school, a huge swath of swamp and deciduous trees that were off-limits after decades of kids wandering in there on dares and nearly drowning themselves. It was a dangerous, stupid place to be, and thus a favorite hangout for Hartford’s resident bad-boys and bad-girls. I used to smoke out there, and almost got poison ivy.
“What’s the Scare-A-Thon got to do with it?”
He smirked at me, and whacked me upside the head with his paintbrush. “It’s a tradition for the seniors to try and sneak out there. And every year I gotta stop ‘em. On account of Chuckles, the Zombie Clown.” He waggled his fingers. “It’s a public service.”
I rolled my eyes. Chuckles was the hokiest of folk-stories, a local urban myth so cheesy he wasn’t even used to scare tourists. He was simply too lame. “Really, dude? Chuckles is bullshit. No circus ever camped on the Downs, and no fuckin’ clowns drowned out there, neither. You are full of it.”
“Yeah, duh.” Dicky actually agreed with me for once. “But you’ll still come, right? Buddy? Pal? Butt-boy?” He ruffled my hair and I swiped at him with the mop.
“What are we supposed to do, out there?”
“Sneak out on Scare-A-Thon night. Scare those pussies right outta the swamp. Bam!” He punched the wall we were painting, and his knuckles came away raw and streaked white. “That’s the plan, Stan. You in?”
I was trying to play it cool, like I wouldn’t follow my crush to the ends of the earth and back. “Sure, whatever. Chuckles the Zombie Clown… Jesus, I need to get a life.”
“The hell you do. You got me.”
Maybe, in some cheesy way, I thought it would impress him, make him notice me. What was I thinking, that we’d bond romantically under the moonlight? Fuck’s sake, the washed-up nerd and the shaggy pothead. Well, it didn’t matter. What happened, happened, and there’s no way to change it.
God, I wish I could.
By the time we met up that night, Scare-A-Thon was almost over, students and chaperones trickling home, serenaded out of the parking lot by thumping pop music which oozed and pulsed from the gym. As instructed, I was wearing a dark tracksuit with a ski-mask bunched on my scalp, like a half-assed ninja bank robber. Dicky pulled up in front of the school driving his dad’s red pickup, one of the front wheels squeaking up onto the curb. He was already wearing the wig and the face paint, and I laughed–he really did look like a circus washout.
“Yo dude, be quiet. We gotta keep this on the down-low.” He’d gotten more and more serious as we wound up towards the big night––worried we’d get caught, I assumed. I didn’t get the big deal, it was just a prank. It wasn’t as if we were breaking the law—except for the axe. That would look pretty bad to the cops. Yes Officer, we were sneaking around in the woods with an axe as a prank! Just a prank, no worries.
“You’re sure we don’t need anything else?” I asked. “Vampire teeth? Some knives to tape on your fingers?”
“Nah, the clown in the story doesn’t have those.” He was straightening his polka-dot clown costume with all the dignity of an ambassador straightening his tie. Mr. Bowdoin, my third-period Chem teacher, walked by and we waved at him. He scowled at me. I skipped his class every other week, and he seemed to take it personally. Later that year, he’d take me aside and ask me not to drop out, saying I was throwing away my potential. Tragedy, he would say, shouldn’t stop me from succeeding.
I told him to fuck off and leave me alone.
“Fuck. Zipper’s caught.” He turned around, and I noticed with anxiety that he was only wearing boxers under his puffy suit, which fluttered in the breeze. His junk must’ve been freezing. “Re-zip me, Jeeves!”
“There. You good, ‘Chuckles’?”
“Don’t use the name, dude.” He sounded hoarse, but when he turned to me he was grinning, rubbing face-paint over his cheeks. “Remember the rules?”
“Gimme the rhyme. Come on, dude.” I shook my head. “Come on!” When I didn’t, he took a swing at my crotch, and I jumped back. “Give it or I’ll nurple you.”
I covered my nips by reflex. “I barely remember your dumbass rhymes!”
“I signed up to scare seniors, not memorize stupid poems like I’m fucking five.” He took a shot at my nuts, and I howled, beating on him with the clown wig. God, that hurt.
Once I was done squealing, I leaned against his car and recited the rhyme. Whatever Dicky’s plan was, it involved me learning the local legend. As a transfer student, I found this both annoying and creepy. “The clown, the clown of Hartford Downs,” I intoned in my best Vincent Price. “Give him a smile, and he’ll come on around.”
“Right, you got it. Crack a smile, and the clown comes to eat you.” Dicky took the wig, shook the spilled Power Frost out of its curls, and put it on. “You read the origin story?”
“Cut in half by his fellow clowns for being a pedophile, rises every Halloween?”
“Yes! God, that’s so dumb.”
“Good. Now what’s the best defense against zombie clowns?”
“Like the rhyme says: no smiles.” I drew in a sharp, cold breath, astonished, even in my devotion, that this douche managed to drag me along. “Chuckles can’t see you if you don’t smile. You’re invisible.”
“Exactly. And stop saying the name.”
“How does this story help us prank the upper-class guys?”
“You’ll see.” He pulled the wig tight over his scalp, and now he truly looked the part: a stubby, malevolent imp, with a shock of rainbow-colored hair and bright, spectral face paint. He took the axe from me, and again I wondered why we couldn’t just get a rubber one down at the costume store. He’d insisted on a real one, and so I’d gone out to the old firewood shed behind my mom’s house, and stolen ours. Handing it over, I felt chills.
Something was wrong. This didn’t feel like a prank—it felt methodical. Like we were prepping to work on a nuclear reactor, except instead of hazmat suits, we had Halloween costumes.
“We’ll be out before you know it,” he was saying. “Just stay by me, don’t drop the fucking flashlight. You drop that thing, and we could both get lost and drown.”
“I ever tell you how much fun you are? This boner-killing prep shit is real uplifting.”
“I’ll lift your mom, with my dick. Come on.”
There was fog on the Downs. Not a thick fog, but creepy in the way it swallowed up the woods. Places you could see from the school doors—the old water tower, the patch of dead trees where the waterline had risen and killed off a grove of birch—had been eaten alive by the dark and the mist. If there was a better place to scare a bunch of teens out of their gourds, I couldn’t think of one. It was tough getting past the brambles on the forest edge, but with the axe we managed to cut a path. So far, so good.
If you’ve ever been in the New England woods at night, you begin to understand why Puritans thought there were witches out there. With the exception of our flashlight, there was no light at all—not even the moon, which was obscured by a murky bank of cloud. Undergrowth snagged our legs and deadfall threatened our all-important family jewels half a dozen times. By the time we reached the swamps, I was beginning to resent Dicky for dragging me out here. This prank was so dumb.
A sound floated through the woods ahead of me––a quiet, rubbery squeaking.
The muck coating my legs had sapped away my body heat, and I had no patience for bullshit. “Quit honking that horn, Dicky. We got enough props.”
“I’m not honking anything, dipshit.” Dicky paused, his white makeup glistening in the diluted moonlight. “It’s him. He’s here.”
“Who’s-” I laughed. “Oh, sure. Sure he is. Joke’s on me, I get it.” I spread my arms. “There aren’t any seniors, huh? You got someone out there with a horn or some shit?”
He was peering over my shoulder. His eyes went wide. “Shut the fuck up and hide. Now.”
I’d never heard that tone in his voice. You talked to him on the street, seemed like Dicky found it impossible to take anything seriously. I had heard him discuss the death of a sophomore with casual disinterest. This would’ve been standard tough-guy talk, except the kid had died a day before, wrapped his dad’s Camaro around a tree and splattered all over the road. Nothing shook Dicky. But now, his face was drawn and tight. The ridiculous wig slipped sideways as he grabbed my shoulder.
“Charles. I mean it. Hide.”
It was exciting to finally get called by my real name. Stupidly exciting, in that fluttery-chest way I hated so much. I should have used my brain, but I was distracted—I should have realized it wasn’t a game. That’s when I heard the crunching of leaves and dry, brittle tree limbs on the edge of the swamp.
I turned to look but he was pulling, hauling me away. He tugged me behind a tall, rotting stump and shoved me against it. “Don’t smile,” he said, his face clenched. I’d never seen him afraid—really, truly afraid. “Don’t smile, and don’t make a sound. And turn that goddamn light off. Got it?”
Shrugging, I switched off the light. Man, this is a hell of a gag. This is some Blair Witch shit. Fortunately, I didn’t smile. I was tired, and cold, and a little frustrated, so I didn’t even smirk. That’s how I survived.
The crunching grew closer. He’d told me not to move, but he hadn’t told me not to look. Curious who else he’d swindled into this joke, I peered around the tree, and froze.
A pair of freakishly tall legs was passing through the trees, not twenty feet away. Stilts, they had to be stilts, my mind reasoned. Fluffy yellow pants dotted with colored stars rustled around the legs. I realized with a tremor of unease that the cloth was almost identical to Dicky’s costume. Comically oversized shoes crunched over the underbrush, spotted with mud. The pant-legs were stained with grime, and the stilts ran up into the tree-line, almost fifteen feet high. I couldn’t see who was riding them, but he had to have some skills to walk like that in the dark, with the ground so unsteady and thick with mud. I felt the strangest urge to smile—it was just such a goofy sight. That faint honk echoed again, from the canopy.
I turned back to Dicky, to give him shit. Clown stilts? Really? But he was gone. I saw his shadow moving quietly through the bushes, edging down toward the water. Sighing, I followed him.
The legs crunched off into the fog. I watched them go, exhaustion and boredom slowly slipping away. At any point I could have jumped out from behind the tree and ended the gag. But for some reason, I couldn’t. Maybe it was survival instincts, or maybe I just wanted to see where this was going. It was exciting, in a stupid sort of way. The most elaborate hoax I’d ever seen, better than Loch Ness, better than any grainy flying-saucer pic. Lame reality aside, I was caught up in this. The empty ugliness of the night coursed like heroin through my small-town blood–whatever this was, it felt real. Real enough to touch.
I followed Dicky to the water. There was a series of boards laid over the thinnest section of reeds, at the point the mud turned to a black soup of peat-water. He was creeping along these like a ghost, his ridiculous suit rustling along with the reeds. I hustled after him. I’d been down this way in daylight, before. Somewhere in all this muck there was a dry spot the seniors called the High Spot, where people went to smoke up. Not all of us were like Dicky, who could wander into class reeking of pot and just get a slap on the wrist. The rest of us mere mortals had to hide our vices.
“That was great, man. Who’d you get to stand on those things, Larry Byrd? How’d you get the shoes to stay on?” He didn’t answer. I slapped his shoulder, and grinned.
Somewhere behind us, a faint bicycle-horn sounded, far-off and goofy.
Dicky clamped a hand over my mouth, but the damage was done. Somehow I couldn’t help it; I giggled. It was all so goddamn stupid, so dramatic. “Offfm
“Stop it. Stop that.” He looked at me, and I saw sweat had marred his face-paint. Worse, I saw the corner of his mouth twitching, as if he was struggling to hold in a cackle of his own. “Cut it the fuck out, man! I mean it!”
“Get your hand off-”
“I mean it!” And the axe was at my neck. The edge, rusty and dull but still sharp enough to put some holes in a dorky fifteen-year-old, rubbed against my ski mask. I stopped smiling.
“Woah. Dude, calm the fuck down.” I held up my hands. I knew Dicky was crazy, we all knew, but I hadn’t figured on this kind of crazy. I decided right then I was done with this gag. I wasn’t lurking around the swamp with a goddamn axe-wielding psycho.
“Down, now.” He hauled me to the boards. I went on my hands and knees without fighting; I didn’t want axe wounds or tetanus, you know? The path was narrow, and mud squelched between the old, sodden two-by-fours we kneeled on. The reeds surrounded us, their marshy stench invading our nostrils.
“For fuck’s sake, Dicky,” I hissed, pushing the axe away. “Fuck’s sake, man, what’s wrong?”
He pointed. My eyes followed his fingers, and something wrapped around my heart and squeezed.
The stilts were on the boards behind us, a rock’s throw from where we crouched. The reeds made us invisible in the shadows, but there was just enough light to see by, now that we were out of the trees. The legs…
The legs had no body on top.
Fifteen feet of goofy clown-pants ended at the waist, and from there a few ragged bits of raw-looking meat stuck out, and something white. The base of a spinal cord, I thought, even while disbelieving it. I did some quick math—there was no room for a hoaxer inside those fluttering, fifteen-foot trousers, no space a human could use to pilot the merry, walking joke across a dark marsh in the middle of the night.
What the shit?
I watched, thunderstruck, as the legs turned and began to walk away. Squeak, squeak. A string of loose, dangling intestine swayed behind them. I wasn’t smiling now, I wasn’t even blinking. Dicky dragged me along the planks, which groaned beneath us so loud I was sure the legs would––but how could the legs even hear? What in the fuck?
We reached a slope of rotten plant matter, with an old Coors box sitting on its banks. The white spray paint on it read IT’S TIME FOR and the rest had rotted away. I sat on the moldering leaves of the tiny marsh island, the sound of distant clinking beer-bottles and wavering, drunken shouts hitting my ears. Over the trees, the lights of the school parking lot glowed, orange and ghostlike. We weren’t even three hundred yards from the gymnasium. If it weren’t for the water, I thought, we could walk back there inside a minute.
“Jesus,” I moaned. “Jesus goddamn Christ.”
“I told you not to smile, dude.”
“Was that a robot? Animatronic?” I sniffed the fabric of the balaclava. “Did you hide shrooms in my mask? What the hell was that?”
“That’s not even how you do shrooms. Give me a break” His flat voice was so unlike the Dicky I knew that he could have been a doppelganger. “No, that was him. I’ve never seen him so tall, though. This is new, he’s experimenting this year.”
“Fuck!” I said it quietly, over and over. Whimpering it. “Fuck, fuck.”
“We have to get those idiots back to the school.” He nodded at the thin, sparse trees behind us– the drunken hollering was fairly close now. “Stop them smiling too much. Scare ‘em back to land. Otherwise….” He licked his lips, his thick tongue lapping up the absurd lipstick we’d slapped him with. “Remember Olly Danvers, class of ’13?”
“Yeah. You wouldn’t. Because he came out here to mack on Halloween, and then he was a milk carton photo.” Dicky shook his head. “Some fuckin’ bullshit, man. I hate this place.” He stood. “Fuck it—I hate this job.”
“If you’re out here every year… how do people not-”
“Talk?” He shrugged one shoulder, looked away. “Who’s going to admit they got chased out the woods by a stoner in clown makeup? Not our badass seniors, that’s who. Most years it’s easy—there’s only a few. I can get the party broken up before they even get out here. Some year, I’m going to find a way to level this whole island. Just take some dynamite and level the fucker.”
“Dicky, why don’t you let someone else do this?”
He grunted. “It’s not so bad.”
“The fuck it isn’t! You could go to college, move out of town. Instead…” I gestured at the swamp. “This?”
He nodded. “Every year.”
“Why, man?” It was a waste. He wasn’t stupid. No one had been able to pinpoint why Dicky was such a fuck-up, but now I realized he wasn’t. He was a goddamn hero. “Let somebody else chase the ghost clown! For fuck’s sake, why?”
He stared into the mist. His evil jester makeup now looked more like the sad clown you see at the town fair—the one who knows people hate clowns but just keeps on doing his job, hoping to rustle up a single laugh.
“Kids in Hartford don’t think they’ve got futures. Hell, most of ‘em don’t. I didn’t. But one year I saw him take someone. Just yanked him right up into the trees, ate him.” He rubbed his forehead, and I could see the twitch on his lips once more. But neither of us smiled; we were both scared shitless. I was shivering in my ninja suit. “And that kid? He doesn’t have a future now. He doesn’t have anything. So I guess… someone’s gotta do this. It’s a dirty, gross, shitty job. But someone’s got to. Else more stupid, asshole Hartford kids are gonna go missing, with no trace. Every year.”
I stood up. Sat back down again. I thought of the kids in my classes: jerks all, forced into tight spaces and ordered to coexist somehow. “Okay. Okay, come on. We can do this.”
He blinked. “You’re with me?”
“Hell, yeah. Always.”
“Why? You could just go back.”
“Because I love you, asshole.” I blurted it like a total stooge, without thinking, a moment of brainless honesty. I wished immediately that I could take it back, but of course I couldn’t. I still wish I could.
He blanched. Somehow, killer swamp clowns was fine with him, but he heard the raw truth in my voice, and it disgusted him. I could see it on his face. “Dude, what-”
“No—not like that, I mean… shit.”
“You… You actually mean it, don’t you? You total, flaming queer.” And in that second he dropped his guard. I saw the guy who tried his hardest to do the right thing every Halloween, at the risk of getting his throat ripped out, even though he could have just stayed home, done nothing. And I hated myself for being so pathetic, so sappy—but I really did love him.
If only he hadn’t smiled.
A hand shot out from the swamp–gloved, on an impossibly long, puffy-sleeved arm. Yellow nails curled from the fingers of the glove. It seized Dicky’s throat, smudging his makeup, and hauled him under the water. I saw one cherry-red shoe disappear as black-brown filth enveloped him. It took three seconds. I only started reaching for him after he was gone, my body unable to accept what had happened.
For a long time, I just stood there. There was no trace, no ripple to show where he’d been. The other half of Chuckles had taken him somewhere I couldn’t follow. I knew the rules, now, and I knew what had to be done.
I didn’t have time to grieve. Behind me, laughter, high and pealing,. bounced over the squalid night. A bicycle horn honked in response.
Dicky had dropped the axe. I took it. The wig bobbed in the shallows, soaked with pond scum. I took that too.
I would stop them smiling, I decided. I would save them all. Save their shitty souls.
My name is Charles Pierce. And I hunt clowns.