Aphelion Issue 245, Volume 23
November 2019
 
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Laughing Jack

by S.C. Hickman




All around the carnival town.
The clown chased the child.
The blood was shed, the soul bled and bled.
Pop Goes The Weasel.
-Laughing Jack

Amy felt the smooth worn fabric of her Grandmother's old rocking chair. Grooves had been rubbed into the wood pushing its way out of the frayed cloth. She could still hear the voice of the old woman in her mind even now, "Amy, you gotta do what your ole mammy tells you now! Gotta be careful, there's terrible things in the world out there, and there's no one goin' protect you but yourself. After I'm gone you'll be all alone. So you be a good girl, get to college and learn something; don't let those boys trap you in marriage like I was. No. You got brains. Use them."

Amy could still feel the penetrating glance of the old woman's eyes on her, those vibrant sea-gray eyes turning almost violet in the warm light of the afternoon sun slanting down through the blinds out of the western sky. Gave her the chillies thinking about it. She pulled the blanket up around her tighter, watching the flames in the fireplace turning blue and orange and carnelian as the coals burnt down and blackened into ashy soot and deep-red coals on the grate.

She sipped her tea. Listened to the creak of boards, rats scampering between the wood floors above, and what sounded like a train far off in the distance whistling in the snow and moonlight.

She'd come back to bury the old woman. She was the only one left now. Her Mom and Dad had died in a car wreck when she was little. Even her brother was gone these many years, now. The war. It felt like there was some heavy curse on the Greathouse clan, some dark secret heritage that seemed to pervade their lives and destinies. Some forgotten or buried tale of incest or cannibalism that no one had dared pass down the ages. But she knew this was just her morbid imagination running feral. She'd been reading too many of those dime novel vampire stories, quick salutatory parables about immortal beings roaming the nights like gods. No. She was the last of a clan that had once spread its name across this whole county. Now that family was gone, or at least all the legitimate heirs but her. "No telling how many illegits were out there." She thought, "No telling at all . . . ."

Her ears puckered up. She heard a moaning somewhere in the house . . . she listened intently . . . there it was again . . . she froze . . . then she heard what sounded like some chains dragging across the wood, a scraping sound somewhere high above her. She put her tea down. She didn't know what to do. No one was supposed to be around but here. She couldn't imagine who it might be. "Has to be nervousness,"she thought to herself. No such nonsense as ghosts. She'd been watching too many of those paranormal ghost shows about demons and dead people and old Indians and Confederate soldiers and battles and . . . "Stop it," she yelled out to no one in particular. Then she spoke a tentative, "Is anyone there?"

Nothing. Not a clank, not a scrape, not a moan; nothing at all.

She laughed thinking it was just in her head. Then it happened again, a moaning . . .

Now she really was scared . . . terrified. She sat there a moment hesitating. "What should I do?" The big ole Tabby cat of her Grandmother's was curled up next to the flames blinking and yawning at her as if nothing was out of the ordinary. He just snuggled up and turned around digging down into his blanket warming the other side of his back as if nothing was matter at all. "He's no help," she thought. "What to do? What to do?" She slowly got up looking for something she could use to defend herself just in case it was a robber or something . . .

She didn't like that "or something;" not one bit . . .

#

Now everything bothered her. The painting on the mantle of her Grandfather, Alexander Tobias Greathouse IV. His eyes looking down on her like some fierce murderer would follow her no matter where she moved in the room. She hated that, thought he was alive and might step down out of that painting at any moment. He'd always been so stern and fidgety with her as a child growing up. Like he just couldn't be bothered with children, especially those of his only son.

Her father had always been a little wild as a youngster. At least that's what Granny used to say about him. If Tobias, her Grandfather, told him to do one thing, he'd do the opposite just to upset the old man. He didn't mean anything by it, just like to get a reaction out of his dad who was always so unemotional. Granny used to tease the old geezer about it, saying: "Oh, he don't mean any harm, Toby. he's just a normal child doing what children do; getting into mischief . . . "

"Well . . . " The old man would shake his head at her, "He don't need to be misminding me with his cantankerous young soul. It just ain't right. No, siree, it just ain't right." The old man would wander off to his duties as he called them; his daily round of chores that kept him mind preoccupied. Had a little snippety Pekingese that'd follow him around all day, too. Barking and hollering all the time at almost anything. "Blind as a bat," he'd say of the dog. "Droopy eyed critter, can't see a thing so barks at his own shadow, he does." But he needed that dog more than he even needed his son. He was already well past the age of having children when they'd had Thomas. He'd blamed his wife on that score. Said it wasn't right, wasn't meant to be. He didn't like children. Didn't want them around.

Granny cried at night about it. She never spoke to Amy about such things, but Amy knew something wasn't right about it. She just didn't know what it was.

But when her Mom and Dad had fallen from that collapsed bridge the old man had actually shed tears for the first and only time she could remember. Even her Granny remarked on that one day: "That's the only time I'd ever seen him actually show outward emotions for the boy."

As she studied the painting she felt there was something awful hiding up there behind those dark brown eyes. Suddenly she saw something moving there in the eyes, tears dribbling down the face . . . "No, not tears," She thought.

"It's . . . it's . . . blood . . . " she screamed out running toward the kitchen. When she turned back it was gone, he was standing there in that painting like nothin' had ever happened. Now she knew her mind was playing tricks, or was it; or, was it this creepy old house itself? She just couldn't be sure. She need some light. She heard it again, but louder this time: chains and moaning coming from somewhere. But where, she just couldn't figure it out; whether above or below, outside or in. It was like it was coming from everywhere at once. She stumbled on into the kitchen, turned the light on and began rummaging through the drawers for anything, a flashlight, a knife . . . anything.

#

Amy found a flashlight used by her Granny for fetching eggs out back from the coop in the morning, and she also grabbed the biggest cleaver in the wrack by the butcher block. She felt a little safer now. She began wandering around, poking her light into all the nooks and crannies, but found nothing out of place, nothing that would make such a moaning noise. The canaries were all wrapped up. The myna bird who always loved to talk was silent and asleep on his perch. The fish in the aquarium were almost motionless. Nothing out of the ordinary on the ground floor.

She could hear it though, it was real; but she couldn't tell where it was coming from.

She saw the basement door. She hated going down there. Nothing would get her down there tonight either. She made sure the hinge lock on it was in place. It was. She didn't want anything crawling up out of that dark hole. She laughed at that. Like in the movies that her boyfriend Pete would take her to on Friday nights. All those slasher films. She could never watch that gory stuff even though she knew it was all fake, just pigs blood or something else more synthetic. But still . . . it was real enough.

She felt a breeze suddenly. A draft coming from somewhere. But where? She knew there were no windows or doors open. She'd checked them all earlier before sundown. She went out past the pantry onto the alcove porch. The little sun-room was enclosed, screened in and had inset sliding windows pulled down for the winter. She turned the light on. Nothing. Everything was locked up tight.

#

As much as she hated too, she almost called Pete who would tease her and call her silly for worrying. "Yet, something isn't right. Dang it," She said out loud. "Something is making that noise, and it's not natural." Even with the flashlight and meat cleaver in her hands she still felt jittery and helpless. She studied the phone on the kitchen wall for a couple moments but decided against it. She didn't want to hear him laughing and teasing her about this for the next week.

So she put it out of her mind and decided against her previous decision to check the basement pantry out anyway, just in case. As much as she hated it, at least it had a furnace and some noise down there she was familiar with, and it'd be warm from that big old oil burner. And, anyway, she told herself: "They nailed that old door shut years ago when Grandad died just to make Granny feel safer, even though she was a stubborn woman who feared nothing; or, at least nothing she could shoot with a shotgun." Amy wondered where that shotgun was now . . . She had no clue if it was in a gunrack or upstairs. But for now she'd just take her chances.

She unlocked the door to the stairs leading down. When she peered down into all that darkness even the little flashlight couldn't disperse all that blackness. "It's like descending into hell," she thought. She took a few short steps down, heard the furnace light up and almost ran back up it frightened her so; but she persisted. When she got to the bottom she remembered her playroom in the far corner. She hadn't been in there since . . . well, she couldn't remember it'd been so long ago.

She flashed the light around in the gloom. Nothing. Some old boxes in the corner, the washing baskets and machines to the right of the furnace. To the left the dry pantry with all the canned goods. She'd been down here so many times as a child she knew it blindfolded; yet, it was always a little scary in the dark. She moved toward the string in the center where the overhead lamp was. She pulled it and it came on for just a second and burst . . . poof! Glass spewing all over her she stepped back from it and tripped over one of the laundry baskets, her cleaver and the flashlight both clattering to the concrete floor as she tried to catch herself. The flashlight went dark . . . .

"Oh, great!" She shouted out. Now she was in complete darkness except for the dim light trailing the steps down from the kitchen, and that wasn't much. She couldn't even find the flashlight, nor the cleaver; and even if she knew where the light bulbs were on the pantry shelves she couldn't see a foot in front of her face. As she moved forward blindly toward the stairs she felt her foot touch something soft. She could only imagine what it was, and didn't want to reach down and find out; that was out of the question.

Just then the lights from the kitchen went out too.

#

She thought she heard someone or something moving around up there. Footsteps coming from the open door . . . then the squeaky door shut. Now she was alone in all this darkness.

She wanted to scream, but instead she saw herself as a child when her uncle had tricked her and closed her up down here in the dark a long time ago. She remembered the furnace, and it had a big flame inside. All she needed to do was crawl over there and open that big door.

As soon as she moved she touched whatever it was she'd hit with her foot before. It was wet and squishy. "Ooh, shit," she gasped as she pulled her hand back all sticky and wet. She wasn't about to touch it again, instead she crawled to the right of it and worked her way slowly to the furnace.

As she was about to reach up and open it, she heard someone in the dark whisper, "Amy."

She froze. "Oh, gawd," She thought. "Now what?" She didn't move a muscle, not even an eyelash. She sat there as quiet as a mouse, waiting.

Nothing happened. No voices. Nothing.

So she finally got up enough courage to open the grill on the furnace. Light.

She looked around, saw the steps; didn't bother looking for her flashlight or her cleaver and headed as fast as she could up the steps. The door wasn't closed all the way, so it must've just swung shut.

She stepped into the kitchen as quietly as she could. Nothing there. No one.

She wiggled the kitchen light switch on the wall. It came back on. She had no answer to that.

She grabbed a big butcher knife this time, and some candles and matches. "Forget the flashlight," She thought to herself. "No way I'm going back down there again."

#

She felt her iPhone buzzing in her pants pocket. That was odd, she'd tried it earlier and got no signal. She pulled it out and it was Peter. "Where you been?" He yelled in her ear. "I've been trying to get you all evening."

"What? Where do you think I've been?" She didn't like his tone.

"Okay, okay," He sounded more sympathetic. "I was just worried, that's all . . . " He almost sounded apologetic this time. "We heard about the escape."

"Escape? What you talking about?" She was perturbed now, and nervous.

"They say some crazed lunatic got out of the loony farm up there near where your Granny lived . . . " He spoke fast and furious. "What's it called? Pickman's Mill, the State Mental Hospital."

She knew of it, but had never really associated it with being close to the estate. Now she was even more afraid of real madness than her own problems with moaning creatures and ghosts, "So when did this happen?"

"Earlier this evening. It was on the six-o'clock report. Don't you watch TV up there?"

"No!" She yelled.

"Okay, I was just worried," He tried to placate. "I wanted to make sure nothing was wrong."

"Oh, there's plenty wrong," She laughed. "But it's not crazy people I'm worried about."

Now it was his turn to laugh: "What? What you talking about?"

"Well, there's something in the house with me," She said ominously, just to get his goat. "But I don't know what it is or where it is, but it's moaning."

"Moaning?" He sounded quizzical. "What you mean . . . moaning?"

"Moaning . . . that's what I mean." She hung up.

He rang back. "I'm coming up there right now, you stay put -- you hear me, grab something or call the sheriff's office. You just never know."

The line went dead. She looked down and the signal was gone again. Strange.

She went over to the phone on the kitchen wall and thought about calling Pete back, but it was dead, too. No buzz or dial tone. Nothing.

Now she was absolutely alone.

#

She didn't hear moaning anymore, nor the slinking chains across the floor somewhere far away above her in the remoteness of the dark attic. No. It was closer now. She felt its hot breath on her neck, heard its cold laughter and its insane voice so close by she knew just what it was now. She turned around and standing there like a clown or freak out of some side-show carny was the escaped madman, laughing and laughing and laughing at her, sashaying around her, jumping this way and that, hoopla-ing : "Oh, Amy, Amy, Amy . . . we're goin' have so much fun tonight you won't believe it."

She did believe it, except for the "fun" part . . . .

As he sat her down in the turning chair, rope in hand, weaving it round and round and round, he spoke to her in a sing-song voice, saying:

"Now, Amy, sing after me . . .

All around the carnival town.
The clown chased the child.
The blood was shed, the soul bled and bled.
Pop Goes The Weasel.


THE END


2016 S.C. Hickman

Bio: S.C. Hickman writes daily on his blog: Southern Nights on literature, philosophy, culture.

E-mail: S.C. Hickman

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