Hide and Seek
My brain flickered on, a fluorescent bulb somehow intact.
Pain came, waves of it, throbbing from every joint and muscle, explosions of nerves firing off warning signals. Get away, get somewhere safe, but the warning came too late. I struggled to open my eyes, swollen shut, the ringing buzz in my busted eardrums giving way to the sounds of motors, muffled voices, and a slow creak. It was cold.
I was outside. I needed help.
I got my right eye open, then the left, seeing only a blurry dark. I was piled against a wall in an alley. Numbly I looked into the black fog until it began to clear, noticing subtle movement down the alley. As my eyes adjusted to the ambient light I connected the slow creak to a man with a funny hat pulling a wagon. The wagon was filled with boxes. The funny hat man turned his head my way, and I saw the yellow glint of his eyes for a moment before he disappeared into the dark.
I sat there, and I closed my eyes again. After maybe five minutes I managed to pull myself to my feet, swaying in place until I tried to lift my left foot. Instead of taking a step, I fell sideways into a stack of crates. They went over and I went with them, gasping and rolling in the gravel like I was wrapped in carpet. I was bound somehow, and there was a new pain in my right ear. I touched it, or whatever the ear was now - taught and long, pulled like taffy and tied to a familiar tightly-woven elastic fabric.
My suspenders. Which meant whatever happened to me, I had either been coming home from work or on my way there. I couldn’t remember.
From my ear, the suspender lassoed my head three times, cutting into the skin in my cheeks and forehead like cheese under thin wire, and ran from my neck down my back and up through my legs, where it had been clinched it to the zipper of my patchwork pants.
The other suspender was a tourniquet around my left thigh, slicing into the back of my right knee before winding its way up my back and tangling in my hair. My oversized red work shoes had been severed at the midpoint, as well as my socks, and my toes protruded, unhurt but purple. A red foam ball that should have been glued to my face was instead stuffed between my toes.
I was a mess.
"You remember me?"
A voice in the night. I twisted my head all around and saw nothing but shadows.
The shadows moved, and I did half-remember something. Something terrible.
"Oh dear," I said, and then I was lifted from the rubble by a huge hand that bunched the front of my suit in a massive ball of fabric, skin and hair. I dangled several feet off the ground, the hand pulling me face to face with my tormentor. The creature seemed to breathe, and I expected a smell - but air only went in.
"Did I mention? Great show - I laughed, I cried.” Its voice, low and raspy, came from a dark hollow.
"Can you laugh? Laugh for me."
A neon EXIT sign across the street flickered on, bright red tracing the night.
Features of my attacker started to come out - relief in a world of gray flatness, and though I saw clearly for the first time, I couldn't comprehend what I was seeing. With each flicker of light his image was stamped into the night like a Super 8 film playing ultra slow.
Its face was still hidden, but the thing it wore on its head I'll never forget.
A menagerie of gears, pulleys, hinges and all manner of mechanical ornamentation balanced there. It was a hat of sorts, a cone of living, steaming complexity. A tiny metal man in a tiny metal cart emerged from a hole and rode a thin rail around the headgear and back in, tiny arms raised in anticipation of some hidden drop. Inside the machine I heard the sound of gears grinding and then a shrill drilling noise that rattled the nerves in my teeth, followed by a puff of steam from the hole. I imagined the tiny metal man had just met its maker. Below the steam machine was the wide brim of the thing’s hat, quarter of an inch thick and curved up at the sides. It wore black robes inlaid with silver designs I would never be able to reproduce, and patterns I've never seen before or since were layered throughout the material with theatrical flair, as though the thing had stepped from the stage of some cosmic opera just moments before.
Finally the neon sign brightened and steadied, and the black hole under the hat let out a phlegm-coated gurgle that could have been a sigh.The corner of its mouth spread and oyster yellow teeth gleamed.
"Make it snappy, Boppo. The show must go on." I tried to laugh, but it came out in wheezes.
Then, as though I were a bag of bread under his arm, he walked me out of the alley and down the empty street to a light pole. He hung me by my collar on the sort of hooks they use for stringing rope for parade day. My feet still dangled several feet off the ground but now I finally had a clear view of him.
It may have been a monster, it may have been a demon. It most certainly wasn’t a man.
His face was concealed by an iron mask, gunmetal blue and riveted there like buttons on some ornate riding saddle. Where his eyes would have been were vertical slits cut into the iron, and the mouth was a completely separate construction, lips blue and floating independent of all else. Its long nose was scooped and chiseled to a point like the edge of a knife. As quick as I could take it all in, the mask spun away and I was looking at another face, white this time and spider-web cracked, a shiny Victorian porcelain. The thing’s new face had a dark orange patch over the right eye, rust-colored nose and full lips.
I opened my mouth.
"Stop. Before you make another sound, let's have a look at what's behind door number three."
The second mask spun off and I was looking at yet another face, this one flesh that had been carved into and inked in such great detail that I couldn’t tell what the original color had been. Dark blue spirals intersected with patches of line-work and dot patterns, bright white arrows and astronomical hieroglyphics - the moon at waxing gibbous, stars going nova and rings wrapping planets. The red concentric circles on his dart-board chin accented the deep red of his nose and his lips were black with white glowing dots.
It was this face that again curled a lip and posed those pearly yellows.
"That's all I have for you tonight, kiddies. Remember, next show is at seven, same place. Dress warm, and bring a friend."
The light went out and a hot puff of fetid air blasted me full in the face and I was left alone, swinging on that light pole, waiting for morning or for some kind passerby to find me and cut me down, just a busted-open clown piñata, hanging in the night.
It's been years since that encounter, and yet I can't keep from thinking of it every now and then. Every squirt of water from my breast pocket daisy, every manufactured trip over my size- twenty shoes, every snap of my suspenders to let out a fart reminds me of my time with that other, darker thing. And when a parent asks me when I'll do the act again, with the balloon animals, and the pies I juggle before catching each, with practiced clumsiness, on my face, when this jolly dad asks will I do it again after the children have eaten and the sun has gone down and the parents are drunk, will I do it just for them if they pay me double, I have to say:
"I'm sorry sir, but the seven-o-clock show has been permanently canceled."