Monday, December 25, 2023

Time for Tears by KM Rockwood

It was very dark in her locked closet at the back of the camper. And cold.

When was Pappy coming back?

Not that Mya really wanted him to come, but still…

It was worrisome.

She had no idea where they were or why they were there.

Yesterday, Pappy had gotten a phone call—he didn’t get many of those—and Mya, sitting on the floor by Pappy’s bed and chewing the end of her ponytail, had listened carefully, trying to see if she could get a clue as to what was going to happen next.

Mya could only hear his end of the conversation. The rest was just garbled muttering.

Whatever it was, it didn’t sound good.

“Dead? What good would it do if I did come?” Pappy’s voice was harsh, like it sounded when he was getting mad.

Muttering from the other end of the line.

“Can’t you send the paperwork and sell the house without me?”

More muttering.

 “What’s my share?”  Pappy’s voice rose. “How do I know you’re not cheating me?”

Still more muttering.

“Oh, all right. If I have to. But only long enough for me to sign everything. You can send me my money when it’s sold.”

He slammed the phone down. Mya cringed, afraid he would turn and see her. He might kick her with those big heavy boots.

But he’d stomped to the back door of the camper, yanked it open, and climbed out.

He didn’t even put Mya in the closet like he usually did.

Silky, the little dog, had crept into the tiny alcove that held the toilet, which they never used.

When Pappy slammed the door shut and locked it, Silky slunk over to Mya, his long white hair brushing the filthy carpeting, and climbed onto her lap.

She clutched him close to her chest. Silky was her best friend. Her only friend.

They heard the engine roar to life and the camper lurched forward.

Mya had no clue where they might be going. Even if she could ask Pappy, there would be no point to it. He wouldn’t tell her, and he might get mad.

She worked hard to keep from making him mad.

Besides, what did it matter?

They travelled for a long time.

Eventually they stopped. When Pappy came back inside, he snatched Silky from her, tossed him out of the way, and unceremoniously shoved Mya into the closet. He latched the door.

All was quiet. Pappy was probably sleeping.

When he got up, he opened the closet door.

Then came the part Mya hated.

He sat her on his lap facing away from him and pulled the hair tie out of her ponytail. Then he started caressing her long sleek hair. She could feel his foul breath on the back of her neck as he buried his face in the softness. His hands moved on either side of her head, massaging, probing, squeezing.

Sometimes he made her hold Silky, and did pretty much the same thing with the little dog’s fine fur, but not today.

She never cried anymore. It was too sad. Besides, it didn’t do any good. Only annoyed people.

Mya had learned to keep both her own hair and Silky’s well-brushed and tangle-free. If Pappy’s roving fingers found a snarl, he would get mad and yank it out. That hurt.

Abruptly, he stood, pitching her onto the floor. He pushed her into the closet and tossed in half a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, and a bottle of water. Not to mention a can to pee in.

He must have been planning to be gone for a while.

That was hours ago.

Now Silky was whining and scratching at the door.

When Pappy went out, he’d just leave Silky in the camper, roaming around. The problem with that was that Silky didn’t have any place but the floor to pee or poop.

The pee wasn’t so bad. It sank into the carpet, which already smelled terrible, and unless Pappy stepped on a wet spot in his sock feet, he wouldn’t realize the pee was there. But the poop…

He’d be mad. And chase poor Silky all around with his belt, swatting at him.

Mya knew what that belt felt like. It hurt. And Silky was much smaller than she was. It could knock him right off his feet.

After those sessions, when Pappy had finished storming around, Mya would take Silky into her closet and close the door. They would huddle together, both trembling, both trying to keep still until Pappy went to sleep. Which he always did eventually.

How much longer would he be away?

Pappy thought she was securely locked in the closet, but Mya knew how to get out. She had a dull kitchen knife hidden under the blankets she used for a bed. All she had to do was slot the end of the knife into the screws on the hinge at the bottom of the door. Then she could take them out and coax the bottom of the door open enough so she could squeeze out.

Once Pappy had caught her outside the closet. But she made sure it was only the once. He’d come in, smelling of beer, to find her asleep on the built-in bench by the table and thrown her back into the closet. He hadn’t noticed the door askew. Probably because he was so drunk.

Mya had quickly straightened the door and replaced the screws.

The next day, Pappy had gone out to buy a new hasp and padlock for the door. He thought that solved the problem, but since he installed it high up on the side of the door, way above the hinges, the only difference his repair made was to steady the top of the door. That made it easier for Mya to slide out.

Across the camper, Silky whined again.

Did she have enough time to let Silky out to poop? And get him back in before Pappy came? Did she dare try it?

She felt in the darkness for her knife, then carefully unscrewed the hinge. She tucked the knife in a corner under her blankets and slipped the screws into her pocket. Losing them would be a disaster.

The interior of the camper was as inky dark as the closet had been.

Maybe it was nighttime and they were parked somewhere in the woods with no lights. Or maybe Pappy had found an old warehouse or garage and parked in there. He said the fewer people who saw the camper the better off they were. People were nosy and liked to get themselves into other people’s affairs.

Mya was supposed to have started first grade this year, in the fall, but that hadn’t happened. Pappy said it was no one else’s business what they did or where they went.

That was why Mya must never talk to anyone. And why she should call him Pappy. That wasn’t his name, and he wasn’t her father, but that’s what he said to call him.

The only thing he ever called her was “Girl.”

It had been so long since anyone called her Mya, she almost forgot that was her name. Mom always called her that, especially when she was cross.

“Mya, stop it now!”

“Mya, what am I going to do with you?”

Ever since the babies had arrived, it seemed like she couldn’t do anything right.

The babies were triplets. Joseph, Jeremy and Joshua. They cried all the time.

Mya didn’t know why they had to have babies. Things were so much nicer before they arrived. She and Mom and Dad and Pongo, the dog, had been perfectly happy.

Mom spent all her time taking care of babies. She never had time for Mya.

Mya had tried to help. She could fetch diapers or pick up things that had dropped to the floor or rinse out bottles. But mostly she was just in the way.

Pongo was in the way most of the time, too, and was often banished to the backyard. When he was inside, he had enough sense to curl up in a corner.

When Daddy came home, he spent all his time taking care of babies, too. Sometimes Mom went straight to bed and left him to fix bottles, change diapers and try to quiet crying babies.

It didn’t work very well. The babies cried no matter what.

He no longer read Mya a story each night.

One time, she had stood there, watching as he grabbed a clean diaper and laid a crying Joseph on the changing table. She clutched one of her books.

“Later, Mya. I don’t have time now.” He took off the dirty diaper. A terrible odor drifted into the room.

Mya knew that later would never come. At least not tonight.

A tear slipped down her cheek.

Joseph let out a particularly loud wail. A stream of pee arched into the air, right into Daddy’s face and trailed down his shirt.

Holding one hand on Joseph’s tummy, Daddy reached for the little package of wipes.

It fell on the floor.

“Get that for me, Mya,” he said.

She picked it up and handed it to him.

He looked at her tear-streaked face and, instead of saying “Thank you,” he snapped, “What have you got to cry about?”

She went to her room and put on her jammies. She brushed her long hair, but she didn’t brush her teeth, feeling daring and naughty. She got a grim satisfaction from knowing she was not doing something she should.

Climbing into bed, she called Pongo, who came dashing into her room and jumped on the bed.

He licked her face, washing away the salty tears.

Mya opened the book. She couldn’t read, but she could show Pongo the pictures. He snuggled close to her and looked very interested.

Every day seemed the same. Mya watched her parents holding the babies, talking to them softly, rocking them.

Still they cried.

She would sometimes feel a little stone hardening in her chest. Why couldn’t someone hold her like that? She wouldn’t cry then.

Why couldn’t things be like they used to be?

She was old enough to fix her own peanut butter sandwich and of course she was much too old to wear diapers. Mom and Daddy didn’t even say much to her anymore.

Sometimes when she felt that hard little stone in her chest, Mya would do something she knew was naughty. Spill some milk on purpose. Pongo would slurp that up when he had a chance. Hide a pacifier so that one of the babies would be wailing as Mom looked for it. Stomp through puddles outside, getting her shoes caked with mud and leave a dirty trail behind herself on the kitchen floor.

“Mya, what am I going to do with you?”


Then came the dreadful day when everything changed.

Joseph and Jeremy sat in the playpen, crying. As usual. Sometimes Mya thought she hated them.

Mom had Joshua on the changing table, struggling to get a sweater on the squirming body.

When she finally got the chubby, flailing arms stuffed into the sweater, Mom picked up Joshua in one arm and grabbed Joseph, still crying, out of the playpen with the other.

Pongo got in the way.

Mom shooed him into the kitchen and shut the door.

“I need your help, Mya,” she said, heading for the back door. “Come along.”

Reluctantly, Mya followed.

The only time Mom paid attention to her was when she wanted Mya’s help.

And then usually Mya messed up and made Mom say, “Mya, what am I going to do with you?”

The big baby carriage stood sideways at the head of the driveway. They didn’t use a stroller, like everybody else. They had this huge old carriage with solid sides and a hood. Mya had to get on her tippy-toes to see inside it. All three babies could lie in it at once.

“We have an appointment at the well-baby clinic,” Mom explained. “They need their next shots.”

Mya nodded, unsure what this had to do with her.

“Mind these two while I go get Jeremy,” Mom said. “And I need to find the vaccination papers.”

Okay. Mind these two.

What exactly did Mom mean by that?

By now both the babies were screaming, waving their arms and kicking their feet in the air.

Mom looked over her shoulder as she went back into the house. “Try rocking the carriage a little. That might make them stop crying.”

Well, it didn’t.

Mya rocked harder.

The babies screamed louder.

She’d seen Mom push the whole carriage back and forth a bit sometimes if rocking didn’t work.

Mya held the handle and reached one hand down to release the brake.

The carriage had been facing sideways across the gravel driveway, but she must have turned it a bit.

It started to roll down the driveway.

Mya grabbed the handle with both hands.

The carriage was heavy, and it pulled her forward with it.

She tripped. The handle tore out of her grip. She landed face down in the gravel.

The carriage kept going.

The twisting road at the bottom of the driveway was not usually busy, but Mya could see a delivery truck barreling toward them.

At that moment, Mom came out of the house, carrying Jeremy.

“My babies!” she screamed, dropping the baby she was carrying in the grass and sprinting down the driveway.

The carriage continued on its way, picking up speed.

The delivery truck kept coming, not slowing down at all.

As she passed, Mom shot a wild look at Mya, who was lying face down on the ground.

“What did you do, Mya? Those babies could be killed!” she hollered as she dashed down the driveway.

Killed the babies! And it would be all Mya’s fault.

How could anyone ever forgive her?

She scrambled to her feet and ran through the back yard, down to her special place in the narrow strip of woods by the stream.

She sat on a rock and cried, wishing Pongo would come find her. But he was closed in the kitchen. She stayed there all afternoon until it started to get dark.


That was when Pappy had shown up.

She’d seen Pappy before, although not lately.

His parents lived in the house across the stream from her family’s. He showed up every once in a while, in a big, smelly camper, which he tucked away in an old garage behind the house.

He’d wander around for a few days, sneaking into people’s yards and outbuildings. When anybody tried to talk to him, he’d glare at them, mutter a few curses, and go back to his parents’ place.

When he was around, everybody would lock up all their yard equipment and bring in their outdoor furniture. All doors would be firmly locked and all pets brought inside.

As suddenly as he’d shown up, he’d be gone again, and everyone in the neighborhood would breathe a sigh of relief.

But this time he came right up to Mya and grinned.

She shrank back.

“You’re coming with me,” he said.

Mya shook her head. She was in enough trouble. Mom would be mad if she left.

He leered. “Your mom told me to take you,” he said. “Far away. She said she didn’t care where. As long as you’re gone.”

No. That couldn’t be true. Could it?

“They gave me money to take you away. You don’t think they want you anymore, do you? After what you did?”

What had she done?

Killed Joseph and Joshua. All Mom had left was Jeremy, who she’d dropped in the grass.

It was all Mya’s fault.

Mom was always asking what she could do with Mya.

Now this horrible man was letting her know.

Give Mya away. Pay somebody to take her.

Nobody could really blame Mom.

Mya deserved it.

Blinking back tears, Mya stumbled along as Pappy pushed her toward the old garage where he parked the camper. He opened the back door and lifted her in, shutting the door behind her.

A timid little dog, its white fur all matted, cowered in a corner.

Then the camper had lumbered out of the garage, tires crunching on the gravel drive, and kept going.

Since then, she’d hardly been out of the camper for more than a few minutes at a time.

Pappy warned her that, if she tried to talk to anyone, he’d take her somewhere away from people and just leave her. At night. With nothing.

Maybe he’d leave Silky, too. Nobody wanted him, either.

The money had run out, so why should he keep her?

Then what would she do? They’d starve to death. Or freeze, if it was cold enough.


Silky scratched at the door and whined.

Mya crept over to it. She stumbled over Silky’s bowls, but fortunately there was no food or water in either one to spill.

He must be hungry and thirsty. She’d share her water with him when they got back, and give him a slice of bread with peanut butter.

When she pulled the door open, the little dog dashed out and squatted.

Outside of the camper, it was a little brighter. They were in some kind of a building. Not a big warehouse, more like a garage or an oversize shed. Dim light showed through two grime-covered windows. Cracks and holes in the walls and roof let a bit more light in.

Silky sniffed around.

She should get the dog back in right away, Mya thought. Who knew when Pappy would come back?

The building smelled of dampness and rotting wood, but it was a lot better than the stinky interior of the camper. Mya shivered. But it really wasn’t much colder than inside the camper.

Silky stuck his nose in a particularly large hole where a piece of the siding had broken away. As Mya watched, he squeezed through the opening and was gone.

Oh, no!

Mya dashed over to the hole, fell to her knees, and peered out. “Silky!” she whispered as loud as she dared. “Come here, Silky!”

But Silky was gone.

What was Pappy going to do if he came and Silky was missing?

Maybe she could go back into the camper and crawl back into her closet.

If she left the door open, maybe Pappy would think he’d been careless and not closed it.

But what would happen to Silky?

He was a nice dog, and, thanks to Mya, he was well-groomed, even if he did need a bath.

They both did.

If somebody found him, they might decide to keep him. Then Mya would miss him, but the dog would be much better off.

Or he might get hit by a car. Or starve to death. Or get eaten by a coyote.

Mya shivered. She had to get Silky back.

When she pushed on the heavy doors behind the camper, they only moved a few inches before something stopped them.

Not nearly enough room for her to slip out.

There had to be another way out. A rectangle along one side was outlined by the faint light. A side door big enough for a person?

Mya went to it and tried the knob. It didn’t turn.

She pushed on the door and it gave a few inches. She put her shoulder against it and shoved.

The door fell outward, landing with a thud on the ground.

Now she’d done it. Pappy would be furious.

The only thing she could think of was that if she could prop it back up in place, maybe Pappy wouldn’t notice.

But she would have to worry about that later. First she needed to get Silky back.

A layer of snow covered the ground. It wasn’t very deep, but a fresh wintery scent filled the air.

Even if the stiff breeze was cold, it smelled so good after the stink inside the camper.

But snow on the ground was not good. Even if she caught Silky back, climbed back in, and wiggled her way into her closet, footsteps and pawprints in the snow would tell anyone who looked that they’d been outside.

Would Pappy look?

Maybe they’d be lucky and it would still be dark when he got back and he wouldn’t notice.

She crept along the side of the building, hugging the wall. Strange flashes of light cut through the darkness. When she got to the corner of the building, Mya stopped. She blinked rapidly, trying to get her eyes to focus.

Outdoor lights blinked in the distance, visible through the bare branches of the woods in front of her. Wherever they were, somebody had decked out a house nearby with multi-colored Christmas lights.

Was it Christmas time?

With a pang, Mya remembered Christmas before the babies came. Daddy would put up lights like that, and they’d have a tree in the living room, covered with more lights. Santa would bring her a few toys, and they’d have a big dinner with a turkey.

Last year, though, when Mom and the babies had just come home from the hospital, Daddy hadn’t gotten the outdoor lights up at all. And although he’d gotten the Christmas tree out of its box in the attic, and carried down bins of decorations, somehow no one had ever gotten around to putting anything on the tree. All Santa brought her was a stiff teddy bear holding a little container of dusting powder. And a candy cane.

She shared the candy cane with Pongo.

Mya wondered if Pappy could be visiting the people in the house. If so, she hoped they were giving him plenty of beer. Then he might stay awhile. And be too drunk to notice the disturbed snow.

As her eyes adjusted to the dimness alternating with the stabs of light, she saw a white shadow a few yards away, moving slowly on the edge of the woods.

“Silky!” She tried calling to him in a loud whisper, but he didn’t hear her. Or decided to ignore her.

She couldn’t really blame him. It wasn’t often he got the chance to sniff around outside.

As Mya crept up behind him, the little dog looked at her over his shoulder. He wagged his tail, but then he trotted deeper into the narrow band of trees.

Mya followed him, trying to avoid stepping on any sticks that might snap and call attention to them.

A softer breeze rattled the branches surrounding her. The woodsy smell of decaying leaves mingled with the fresh snow scent. Soon she heard the burbling sound of running water.

Silky had stopped by a stream and was lapping up water.

Of course he was thirsty. Pappy hadn’t left any water in his bowl.

He didn’t scoot away when Mya came up next to him and put her hand on his collar.

She looked down at the shallow water, flowing along a gravel bed, over rocks and around a withered stump. A series of flat stones created a crossing.

It reminded her of the stream near her parents’ house, where she used to go play. Where Pappy had come to get her.

A lump formed in her chest and tears formed in her eyes.

Angrily, she brushed them away. Crying did no good. All that was past. Her life consisted of trying to keep Pappy from getting mad at her or Silky.

She looked across the stream. The house was visible through the woods. She could see rectangles of light where the light from the windows shone on the ground. There were no curtains drawn. Why would anyone bother, when the windows looked out onto the yard and the woods by the stream beyond?

Mom had never bothered to cover the windows in her old house.

Silky finished his drink and let Mya pick him up. She looked down at the stepping stones crossing the stream.

Funny. They looked really familiar, like she already knew how to use them to cross over.

Her breath caught in her throat.

They were familiar. This was her old play-and-hiding place.

The house she saw up ahead was where she had lived before they sent her away.

She looked over her shoulder and realized that the camper was parked in the back garage of the neighbor’s old house. The place where Pappy came to visit sometimes.

Beyond that would be his parents’ house.

Maybe that was where Pappy was.

Mya should take Silky back to the camper. If Pappy caught them outside like this, who knew what he might do?

But she wanted to peek in a window to see if Mom and Dad were there. And Jeremy, the baby who hadn’t been in the carriage when it was crushed by the truck. The baby Mom had dropped on the grass when she went running after the carriage.

Mya wondered if they would decorate the Christmas tree for that last baby. They’d put up the outdoor lights.

After all, no matter how sad everybody was, they might try to make Christmas nice for him.

Daddy had put up the outdoor lights.

Clutching Silky and shivering, not entirely from the cold, she cut across the lawn and snuck up to the side of the house.

She was too short to see in the window.

Looking around, she found a big empty flowerpot and kicked it over toward the window.

When she got it there, she upended it and carefully stepped up on it, bracing herself on the wall with the hand that wasn’t holding Silky.

She could see inside.

They did have a Christmas tree. The same one they’d always had. Mom was sitting in her chair, knitting.

Mya saw a bit of movement as a baby, holding a stuffed bear, toddled into sight.

It had to be Jeremy.

At least Mom had one baby left.

Mya’s breath caught in her throat.

Then another baby toddled into sight, reaching for the toy Jeremy held.

And a third one followed.

She gulped in cold night air.

Three babies. Yes. Three.

Joseph and Joshua hadn’t died after all. She hadn’t killed them.

Maybe the truck had managed to stop before it hit the carriage. Or maybe it had hit them and they’d been hurt badly. Maybe everybody thought they were going to die, but the doctors had managed to save them.

Whatever, it didn’t change the fact that Mya had almost killed them. No one would want a girl like that anymore, would they?

But at least she could stop feeling bad that she’d killed the babies.

She supposed she should get back to the camper with Silky. Even if she ever got the chance, she wouldn’t let Mom know that she’d been there and looked through the window. It would all be too sad.

As Mya teetered on the inverted flowerpot, hungry to see everything, something rushed around the side of the house and knocked into her.

She tumbled to the ground, holding tight to Silky.

It was Pongo, her old dog.

Pongo barked and squirmed over her, licking her face.

Silky cowered in her arms.

She didn’t see Daddy until he was standing over her, his eyes wide with shock.

“Mya?” he asked.

What was going to happen to her now? Was he going to take her back to Pappy, who would be really mad?

Maybe he’d give Pappy some more money. That might make things better for a while.

“Mya.” He scooped her up off the ground, Silky and all, and pulled her tight against him.

She held herself stiff and bit her lip to keep from saying anything.

“Mya. Where have you been? We’ve missed you so much. Your mom will be so happy to see you.”

He carried her into the warm house, which smelled of baking bread.

Mom sprang out of her chair. “Where did you come from, Mya?” she asked, tears in her eyes.

“Who cares where she came from?” Daddy said, hugging her closer. “The important thing is we have her back.”

“I care. The police will care,” Mom said.

“You can call them. I’m going to read The Night Before Christmas to my girl.”

Mya buried her face in Daddy’s shoulder. She knew she was blubbering, but she couldn’t stop herself. Huge sobs shook her chest.

Silky whimpered.

Pongo whined.

Mom was crying.

The babies were wailing.

Mya could feel Daddy’s chest heave. She could hear tears in his husky voice as he said, “You’re home now, Mya.”

Maybe sometimes crying did do some good.



Sunday, December 17, 2023

The Last Laugh, by Lori Roberts Herbst

 When we found Spanky curled in a fetal position in the back seat of his yellow clown car, Paloma and I assumed he was sleeping off another bender. Wouldn’t have been the first time. There was a reason Spanky didn’t need to wear a plastic red nose like the rest of us clowns.

I tugged at the end of my lime-green tie and took a deep breath, inhaling the familiar odor of elephant dung. I opened the car door, stuck my foot inside and prodded Spanky with my floppy blue shoe. Not a whimper nor a moan. I squeezed through the door and shook Spanky’s shoulder. 

“Up and at ’em. pal. Gotta get ready for tonight’s show.

No response. A purple hue radiated beneath his white makeup. His thick tongue protruded through painted lips. I slid my finger under his nose. No air puffed from his nostrils.

Guess Spanky hadn’t passed out after all.

I wriggled out of the car and turned to Paloma in her sequined costume, auburn hair piled atop her head. She lifted a well-plucked eyebrow and raked a set of purple fingernails across her neatly trimmed beard. 

“Is he—?”

“Can’t be sure. Gonna need some help getting him outta the car.”

I clutched Spanky’s armpits. Paloma hurried around the front of the vehicle and opened the opposite door. She wedged her hands against Spanky’s nether regions, shoving as I tugged, until we dislodged his six-foot frame.

Once Spanky lay prone on the sawdust covered arena floor, I dropped to one tweed-covered knee and dragged a finger across the greasepaint that covered his neck. When I located his carotid artery, its stillness confirmed what I had already deduced. We had a dead clown on our hands. 

I wiped white goo from my finger onto the back of my tie and leaned closer. A jagged smear across his jugular interrupted the smooth makeup on his neck. I dabbed at the smeared line with my floral hanky, uncovering an angry red ligature mark.

Spanky the Clown had been strangled.

Sitting back on my heels, I spotted a length of tightrope snaking from beneath the clown car. The murder weapon, I presumed. 

An oft-told circus joke popped into my head. How do you kill a clown? Go for the juggler. Ba doom boom.

I chastised myself. How could I think such things when a man was dead? Was I in shock? Or had I simply developed a sense of humor as sour as the frown painted onto my face?

Rain pinged against the tin roof covering the arena. I shut my eyes and listened to the rhythmic sound, glad it wasn’t sleet. Sleet would keep the crowds away, and our paychecks depended on crowds.

Pickles & Peanuts Traveling Circus was preparing for the final show of our annual three-day gig at the Sunflower Fairgrounds in Hazard, Kansas. And now my partner, the only other clown in our act, was dead. I’d have to carry the comic load on my own tonight. Not an easy task, especially since I was the sad clown in our duo.

Paloma’s shadow fell across Spanky’s body, and I struggled to my feet.

“Dead,” I told her, pointing at Spanky’s neck. “Murdered.”

She nodded and hugged her arms across her body, causing generous breasts to bulge over the seam of her low-cut costume. I squirmed, and the plastic daisy affixed to my lapel squirted an embarrassing trickle of water.

Lifting my gaze back to Paloma’s face, I was surprised to see tears in her eyes. I hadn’t pegged Paloma as the emotional type.

“How well did you know Spanky?”

She averted her eyes and shrugged. “Not well. Just in the…you know…biblical sense.”

“You’ve been sleeping with him?”

She rolled her eyes. “Of course. He’s a clown. Everyone knows about clowns. Just look at his big feet. You know what they say—”

I cut her off, the heat rising in my face. “I’m a clown. How come you and I never…?”

She glanced down at my feet. Despite the oversized shoes, they measured a mere size eight, the low end of average.

“Oh,” I said. My lips curved downward, mirroring the painted red arc surrounding my mouth.

Paloma placed a gentle hand on my shoulder. “Besides, Buster, you’re a sad clown. No woman wants to look up during her moment of passion and see a frown. It kills the mood.”

The word “kill” brought me back to reality. I fished the phone from the pocket of my baggy pants and dialed 9-1-1. When I told the dispatcher Spanky was dead, she said she’d send in the cavalry.

Even so, I didn’t hold high hopes anyone would expend much effort toward solving Spanky’s murder. Circus folks fell on the low end of society’s hierarchy. After a cursory investigation, the police would dump Spanky’s death into the unsolved files. The circus would pack up and move to our next stop, hire another clown, and forget all about poor Spanky.

Word spreads fast through a tight-knit community, so I wasn’t surprised to see the circus family gathered near the clown car, silent and respectful. Paloma regularly assumed the role of caretaker, so now she went to each of them. Jeffrey the Juggler took her hand solemnly in his nimble fingers. Our newest crew member, a skinny boy named Jimmy, dropped his eyes when Paloma approached, no doubt reluctant to display his emotions. Twin acrobats, the Winged Wagners, pulled Paloma into a three-way embrace. The animal trainer, the ticket seller, the concessionaire—Paloma graced each of them with words of comfort.

My nature was more cynical than compassionate. As I studied the faces of the assemblage, it occurred to me that one of them might actually be Spanky’s killer. Years of watching Dateline had taught me that people closest to the victim were the most likely suspects. Had some circus family squabble resulted in the clown’s death? I lifted my phone and shot a surreptitious photo of the small congregation. Just in case.

Our manager, a squatty bald man who called himself Tiger, plowed through the door and stomped across the sawdust, stopping beside me. He chewed on the cigar butt clenched between his teeth and glared at the dead clown. “We got a performance in three hours,” he said to the group. “Show must go on, right? Spanky woulda wanted it that way. That’s all I got for a pep talk. Now scram.”

* * * * *

That night, I honored Spanky by painting an extra tear onto my sad face. The show indeed went on, followed by a hundred others in dozens of cities over the course of a year. At first, I hounded the police for weekly updates, then monthly. After half a year, the cops stopped taking my calls. As I had predicted, the case grew cold, and Paloma and I resigned ourselves to the fact that Spanky’s killer had gotten away with murder. 

For a while, we went through replacement clowns like popcorn. First was Pasty, who lasted three weeks before deciding that even a romp in Paloma’s RV didn’t compensate for the stress of life in a traveling circus. The next hire, Beanbag, made it two months before dumping us in Omaha for a mascot gig with a minor league baseball team. A couple of others followed until finally, we got lucky—or should I say Paloma got lucky—when we stumbled onto Tickles, a happy clown with a resume as impressive as his huge feet. Despite simmering jealousy over the nightly rocking of Paloma’s RV, I liked Tickles. His wide grin and goofy antics caused children—and even adults—to squeal in laughter. He became the yin to my yang, and we developed a top-notch act. Months passed, and Spanky’s memory faded. But I never again felt comfortable inside that yellow clown car.

Now, a year after his murder, Pickles & Peanuts Traveling Circus had landed back at the Sunflower Fairgrounds for our annual Christmas extravaganza, complete with reindeer and a rented Santa who reeked of whiskey.

And, as if it were a bad movie sequel, I’d stumbled across another dead clown.

This one hadn’t been strangled. In fact, as he lay on the floor of the cage, his face looked peaceful beneath his pointy, pom-topped hat. But the bloody gash gouged into Tickles’s torso told a different story. A low growl drew my attention to Old Nelly, our circus lion, now poised atop his red and yellow platform. He casually licked a paw as he watched me through narrowed eyes.

What was the lion thinking? That clown sure tasted funny. Ba doom boom.

I tugged on the cage door. Locked. Then I spotted the key in the sawdust several feet outside the bars. 

Poor Tickles. He hadn’t stood a chance.

A door slammed behind me, and Paloma entered the arena. I hurried toward her, spreading my arms to block the grisly scene.

She peeked around me, eyes wide. “Is that—?”

“’Fraid so.” I maneuvered her toward the exit and away from the bloody crime scene. Behind us, the big cat emitted a satisfied roar. Paloma shuddered.

I led her out of the dimly lit arena and into the bright sunshine of the winter afternoon. A few circus workers milled about the grounds, their pace unhurried since the day’s only performance was still four hours away. Paloma shuffled forward like a bearded zombie. When one of the mechanics happened by, I grabbed his arm and whispered in his ear. “Freddo, call the police. Then stand guard in front of the arena door. Nobody goes in.”

“What’s goin’ on?” Though the turnover rate was high in a traveling circus, Freddo was a Pickles & Peanuts veteran with a long memory. I saw suspicion cross his face.

“Tickles is dead,” I said. “Lion cage. I wanna get Paloma back to her RV. Can you handle this?”

He nodded, wiping his hands on a work towel. “Go on then. I got it under control.”

I prodded Paloma forward, my floppy shoes slapping against the dirt as we headed toward the housing quarters. One of the Winged Wagners—I wasn’t sure which one—pedaled by on a unicycle, raising her hand in greeting. A black and white circus cat scampered across our path. As we passed the wooden ticket booth at the fairground's outskirts, I noticed the local rent-a-Santa we’d hired slouched in a rusty folding chair, slurping from a mug. I doubted he was drinking coffee.

“Hey, buddy.” I glanced at him as we passed. “If anyone comes looking for us, we’ll be in Paloma’s trailer.”

“I bet you will,” he said with a smirk. “Ho. Ho. HO.”

Paloma froze. “Did he just call me a Ho?”

I tightened my arm around her shoulder and propelled her toward the RV. “He’s Santa. It’s a traditional greeting. Don’t be paranoid.”

She took a deep breath. I felt the muscles in her shoulders relax. Still, when I looked back at the leer on Santa’s face, I knew he’d meant every single Ho.

* * * * *

Despite our year-long friendship, Paloma had never invited me into her love nest. While she washed up, I stood in the living room, noting the beat-up floral loveseat, stacks of empty pizza boxes, and scattered beer cans scattered everywhere. A rumpled queen-sized bed dominated the left side of the trailer. Images of Paloma flailing about with her big-footed companions flooded my brain. I pushed them aside. This was no time to indulge my green monster. 

To my right sat a kitchenette, complete with a small coffee maker. I filled the carafe with water and spooned grounds into the filter. While the coffee brewed, I sat on the loveseat and picked up a book that lay open on the rickety coffee table. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. In French. Paloma was a multi-faceted creature.

She emerged from the bathroom, her beard dewy with water droplets. Squeezing onto the loveseat, she leaned in to me. “You’re sure it was Tickles?” I nodded. “Damn.” She sighed. “He was okay.”

I glanced at the bed. “Yeah. I didn’t know him like you did, but he was a good guy. A friend. Knew how to make people laugh.”

“Could it have been an accident?”

I raised my eyebrows. “You mean did he wander into the lion cage by mistake? The door was locked, Paloma. The key had been tossed out of reach. I doubt Tickles did that himself.”

“I suppose not.” She pursed her lips. “He was murdered then. Just like Spanky.”

The coffee maker beeped. I filled two mugs and handed one to Paloma. We sipped and contemplated the fate of the two clowns until a knock rattled the RV door. I opened it to find two men in dark suits and sunglasses. Both looked to be twelve. Either they were rookie detectives or late trick-or-treaters dressed up as the Men in Black.

The one on my left held up his credentials. “Detective Bronson,” he said. “And this is Officer Walker.”

“Buster,” I said. Paloma moved in behind me, and I tilted my head toward her. “Paloma.”

Bronson looked me up and down, settling his gaze on my nose. “You always dress this way?”

“Show today,” I said. “I get ready early in case any kiddos come on site. Kind of like Santa. Don’t want to ruin the magic.” I glanced toward the ticket booth, but our drunk Santa had disappeared. Off to get a refill, I expected.

“You found the body, right?” I nodded. “Mind if we talk? Just take a minute.”

“Sure. Want to come in?”

He looked past me at the RV’s grimy interior and wrinkled his nose. “Why don’t you and your… lady friend… step outside?”

I moved back to let Paloma precede me. The four of us stood in a circle. The sunshine reflected off the sequins sewn across Paloma’s skimpy costume. Bronson’s sunglasses paused on her beard, fell to her ample cleavage, and rose again to the beard. I sighed and waited. Every man who met Paloma passed through the same steps. I knew from experience there was no use trying to converse before the process had run its course.

Bronson eventually lifted his gaze to me. “Just wanted to let you know where we stand on the dead clown.”

“Tickles,” Paloma said, glaring at the cop. “He had a name. Show some respect.”

Bushy eyebrows rose above his sunglasses. “Sorry, ma’am. Tickles.”

“Thank you. He was a real person—” Her voice caught, and she wrapped her arms around herself, amplifying her bosom. The detective’s eyes darted downward again.

He shifted from one foot to the other. “Anyhow, our initial findings lead us to conclude this was an accident. A tragic, gruesome accident.”

I shook my head so hard my wig jiggled. “You’re kidding. Are you saying Tickles accidentally got eaten by a lion?”

He nodded. “No sign of a struggle. Maybe he entered the cage to feed the big guy. Maybe he was just screwing around. Either way, we think the clown…” He glanced at Paloma. “… Tickles…entered the cage on his own. Then... well…”

“Did you see the key a couple of yards away? How could the door accidentally lock and the key accidentallyfly out of reach?”

Bronson shot a sidelong look at his partner and shrugged. “Suicide, then. Locked himself in and tossed the key to keep from backing out.”

“Suicide by lion?” Paloma said through gritted teeth. “Ridiculous. You just don’t want to waste your time on a clown in a traveling circus.” She looked at me, eyes blazing. “It’s just like Spanky. They’re not going to do anything at all.”

I narrowed my eyes and turned to the detectives. “You know about Spanky, right? Murdered right here one year ago. Never solved. Does that seem like a coincidence to you?”

I could see by the flex of his jaw that he was unaccustomed to being challenged. “We know about the other clown. And yes, in spite of what you see on TV detective shows, coincidences do happen. But just so you know, we’re only talking to you as a courtesy. Now we’re done. If the crime scene tech finds evidence to the contrary, we’ll let you know.”

He swung on dusty black wingtips and started to leave. After a brief pause, he turned back and faced Paloma. “Off the subject, but are you a guy or a gal?” He pointed from her beard to her chest. “Is that fake, or are those?”

I caught Paloma’s wrist as she reared back to swing at the detective. When he turned his gaze to me, the image in his sunglasses showed a sad clown’s frown beneath a menacing glare. Horror movie fodder. Walker smirked and loped off after his partner.

“By the way,” Paloma called after them, “they’re real—the beard and the boobs. And they’re spectacular.”

* * * * *

Back inside, Paloma paced the small confines of the RV. “Two dead clowns. Same circus, same town. Is it some local who just doesn’t like freaks and geeks? Or have we stumbled across a serial clown killer?”

I shrugged. “It’s definitely more than a coincidence.”

She mused for a moment, then gasped. “Buster, you could be in danger.”

“Nah, I doubt I’d be a target.”

“Why not?”

I hesitated. I had a hypothesis, but I didn’t want to make her feel bad. Still, the cops clearly weren’t going to investigate, so it was up to us. “Don’t take this wrong, but what do the two dead guys have in common?”

She blinked slowly, like I was a nitwit. “They’re clowns.”

 “What else?”

She considered, then her eyes widened in comprehension. “I slept with both of them.” Her voice cracked. “You think I got them killed? Because I had a few rolls in the hay with them?”

More than a few, I reflected. “Not exactly. Hear me out. What are the usual motives for murder?” I held up a finger. “Number one: money. But circus clowns rarely qualify as members of the one percent. Two: power. Not many people vying to be top clown at the Pickles & Peanuts Traveling Circus. That leaves number three. Love. Or at least lust. Is it possible you’ve left a jilted lover in your wake? That for some sad sack out there, you’re the one that got away?”

Her face paled, and her hand flew to her chest. Despite my best intentions, my eyes followed it and lingered longer than they should have. My phone buzzed with a text, dragging me from my momentary reverie. As I reached into my pocket to retrieve it, Paloma’s phone beeped from across the room. We both had the same message: Asshole cops cancelled tonight’s show. Pack your stuff. Rolling out at 6 a.m.

The clock on my phone read 4:57 p.m. That gave us just thirteen hours to nab this killer.

But if my suspicions proved true, it wouldn’t even take that long.

I scrolled through the photos on my phone and showed Paloma the shot taken a year ago of the circus family gather together following Spanky’s death. “Did you go out with any of these men? Even a casual date?”

She concentrated on one face, then the next, shaking her head at each. When she reached the end of the row, she bit her bottom lip and pointed at the screen. “This guy… Jimmy, I think. One of the floor crew, right?” I looked at the man. Just who I had expected. “I didn’t go out with him—not a clown, you know, and way too scrawny—but he hounded me for at least a month. I finally told him I’d hooked up with Spanky, that we were exclusive.” She looked up at me, her blue eyes round and shining. “Jimmy quit the circus after that show. I never saw him again.”

“But you have seen him again, several times over the past couple of days. In fact, we passed him on the way back to your RV this afternoon.”

She blinked a few times as the wheels spun. Then recognition dawned in her eyes. “Santa? But he’s fat. Jimmy was so skinny. And he looks so much older.”

“A year of boozing it up can do that to a guy. I didn’t recognize him at first either.”

She shook a finger at me. “You said he wasn’t calling me a Ho.”

I rose to my feet and extended my hand. “I was wrong. And I think I know where he is. Let’s go shove that Ho Ho Ho back down his throat.”

* * * * *

The Salty Pig was the only bar in Hazard, so I laid odds that’s where we’d find drunk Santa. We’d
borrowed the rusty Peanuts and Pickles service truck and parked in front of a row of faded brick storefronts. I spotted our reflection in a shop window as we walked toward the bar at the corner—a clown in full makeup and a bearded lady in a tight spangled bodysuit. Probably not a sight they saw every day in this one-horse town. I ushered Paloma through the paint chipped door, pausing to let our eyes adjusted to the dim lighting. 

The interior looked as tired as the exterior. Peeling leather stools surrounded old whiskey barrels. Strings of dingy globe lights dangled from the ceiling. A vintage jukebox in the corner warbled an ironic tune: Tears of a Clown

But the scene stealer appeared mounted above the bar: the back end of an enormous pink plastic pig, its curly tail spinning beneath a spotlight.

Happy hour had commenced, and a smattering of old timers guzzled long necks. Paloma pointed toward the oak bar against the back wall. I followed her finger to see Jimmy slumped onto a stool, still wearing his red plush Santa suit. His synthetic beard, tinted yellow from cigarette smoke, lay piled beneath his chin. As we approached, he gave Paloma a sidelong look, took a long drag on his Marlboro Light, and returned his gaze to the whiskey in front of him.

Paloma slid onto the stool next to him. I stood beside her, resting my elbow on the bar. The bartender, a big white-haired country boy whose craggy nose spoke of a bronco-busting, bull-riding past, looked up from the glass he was polishing. “Santa Claus, a bearded lady, and a clown walk into a bar…” he deadpanned. The three of us stared at him. “C’mon, that was funny. What can I get y’all?”

Paloma and I ordered beer. The bartender filled two glasses and slid them in front of us. Then he picked up a rag and began wiping the bar, feigning disinterest.

Paloma gestured toward Jimmy. “Is this what you’ve come to? Some boozed-up strip mall Santa Claus smelling of wet diapers? Promising whiny brats crap they’ll never get?”

He blew a trail of smoke from his nostrils and mashed his butt into the plastic ashtray. “I’m much more ambitious than you imagine. In the spring, I become a boozed-up strip mall Easter bunny.”

She shook her head. “That’s so sad. I remember you were actually pretty good looking once upon a time.”

“And you’re probably halfway decent underneath that facial hair.”

I held up my hands. “Hey, now. Let’s not resort to insults.”

He tilted his chin toward me. “You bangin’ this clown already? Tickles ain’t even cold yet.”

Paloma’s hand flew across Jimmy’s face so fast I couldn’t stop it this time. Her fingernails scored a trio of welts into his cheek. I glanced at the bartender, who leaned against the bar, close to the shotgun he surely kept there. 

Rage flickered in Jimmy’s eyes, followed by mournful resignation. “You’re a firecracker. Always liked that about you. We coulda been good together.”

The rage had evaporated from Paloma as well, and she touched his forearm. Her voice was soft. “Is that why you killed them? Jealousy?”

Tears welled in his eyes. “I loved you, Paloma. Still do. After Spanky died… I thought if I quit the circus, let you get away, I’d get over you. Didn’t happen. I still think of you every day.” He fumbled around the pocket of his Santa pants and produced his wallet, flipping to a miniature advertisement featuring Pickles & Peanuts’ Famous Bearded Lady.

He folded the wallet and took a swig of whiskey. Paloma leaned toward him. “I had no idea, Jimmy. I thought it was just a crush. You killed Spanky because of me?”

Jimmy didn’t speak. Didn’t even move.

“And Tickles?” she prodded.

The atmosphere changed in an instant, electric and dangerous. Jimmy leapt to his feet, and the motion sent his stool clattering to the ground. Paloma squealed as he grabbed her shoulders. I stiffened and leaned forward, ready to jump to her defense, but she caught my eye and gave her head a little shake. The bartender made a move, but I held up my hand. “Wait,” I whispered.

 Jimmy’s lips were tight, his face red. “Do you know what it was like to see you escort him into that stupid RV? To see it rocking on its tires and to imagine…” He blew out a breath and cocked his head toward me. “At least I know this guy gets it.”

I glanced at Jimmy’s small feet, feeling a sudden kinship with the man. Paloma put her hand on his cheek. “Did you kill him?” she whispered. “Did you lock him in that lion’s cage—” Her voice choked.

He stared into her eyes and nodded. “I acted like I was going in myself. Told him I wanted to end it all. He tried to stop me. I shoved him inside and locked the door. Didn’t take but a minute for Old Nelly to realize he was getting a clown burger for lunch.” His lips curved into a manic grin. “Spanky was even easier. Passed out in the clown car, the old souse. Barely came to when the rope tightened around his neck.”

 “Oh, Jimmy. How could you?”

 “Those clowns weren’t good enough for you. I woulda made you happy. Still can. I just gotta make you give me a chance.”

He unzipped his Santa coat, reached beneath a padded fake belly, and pulled out a black snub-nosed gun. Then he spun Paloma around, flinging his arm across her chest. “I don’t wanna hurt anybody,” he said, his eyes darting from me to the bartender. “But she’s coming with me.”

He moved backward toward the door, dragging Paloma with him. In a moment of theatrical instinct, I stuck my floppy shoe in his path. He tripped over it and pinwheeled to the floor, the gun bouncing from his hand and skittering away. Paloma landed on top of him and rolled off, thudding onto the dirty wooden planks.

Jimmy scrambled to his feet, wild eyed, and darted for the door. The bartender rushed around the bar, cradling his shotgun. I lifted Paloma to her feet, brushing peanut shells and cigarette butts from her sequins. “Are you okay? Did he hurt you?”

She fluffed her hair and smoothed her beard with a steady hand. “I’m fine.” The woman had ice water in her veins.

The bartender returned, breathing hard. “Santa’s got some zip in his gitalong,” he muttered. “Couldn’t catch him. I’ll call the cops.” The bar’s patrons, unfazed by the excitement, turned back to their beers.

Paloma looked at me, red lips curving into a knee-weakening smile. She wrapped her arms around my waist and pulled me close. “My hero.”

“But I let him get away,” I said. “A real hero would’ve made him pay for Spanky and Tickles.”

“Cops'll catch him.”

“They didn’t last time—”

She put a finger to my lips. “Maybe they won’t. Either way, his clown killing days are over. And that’s because of you.”

She kissed me, a deep, wet kiss that made my flower squirt. Her breasts heaved against my chest, and I stroked the soft down of her beard. Definitely real. The boobs and the beard. 

“Let’s go back to my RV,” she said, her voice husky.

“Does that mean…?”

She nodded. “Buster, I’m about to turn your frown upside down.”