By J. J. Keeling
Friday was always a day Stephania wanted to cut short. There was so much to do this weekend and she had to get a head start on it. Sometimes it seemed almost like the job at Fancy Frames was just getting in the way. If it wasn’t for the fact that she and Fred needed money in order to pay bills, she would definitely spend her time elsewhere. Oh, she liked her job for the most part. She was working in an area that actually had something to do with what she had gone to school for, much more so than the job at Claire’s in the mall. But she could be doing much better things with her degree than stretching canvas for rich twirps who thought they were better than she was because they had big houses and cars that didn’t need repair every month.
She was just finishing up a job when Christine came in with a smug look on her face. “This needs to be done by Tuesday,” she stated in her flippant French accent, holding up a canvas.
“Tuesday? Did he bring a frame with him? Because I don’t think we’ve got anything on hand that will work and it will take until then to get one in.”
“No. Just work on it and if we need more time we can figure something out. And can’t you do something with that fluff you call hair? Maybe if it was shorter. Do you still have the number for my stylist?”
“Yes and I’m not going to use it because I like my hair the way it is. It’s just fine. You’re the only one who has a problem with it.”
“Well, just get to work stretching this, okay?” Christine demanded, finally showing the front of the canvas to Stephania and walking out the door. Steph was just stunned. Anything she had been thinking about doing to her frustrating boss went right out the window when she saw the painting.
It was a navy background, like early evening just after twilight. There was a street lamp burning somewhere overhead, bearing down on what had to be the most evil clown she had ever seen in her life. He was holding a red balloon that seemed to be dripping. The oils were obviously sloppily done. His eyes were brown with a little too much auburn, making them seem like a red that was merely subdued into brown. His smile was more of a grimace of pain, like something out of ancient Aztec art, teeth slightly jagged like a dull serrated knife. His suit looked like he should be in the middle of a rodeo, but with red tones in places where they had no business being. It looked like he’d been in a fight in a slaughterhouse and lost. Maybe that was where he got the chicken.
“Ugh! How can someone call that art?” Lori, her coworker, asked. “That’s just plain creepy. I wouldn’t want to frame that thing.”
“I don’t want to frame it. I don’t even want to touch it. I hate clowns. They’re evil,” Stephania declared with a wide-eyed frown.
“Well, I’d help, but you know I’m leaving early to get ready for my cruise. Hate to leave you alone with Christine and the clown all next week, but I’m sure you can take care of yourself. You’re a big girl.”
“Gee, thanks. Well, I’ll see you when you get back unless this clown gets me first,” Steph said, half jokingly. Lori picked up her purse and headed for the door, leaving her all alone with the painting. Steph closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Maybe if she didn’t really look all that much at the actual clown part she could deal with it okay. She wasn’t kidding when she said she hated clowns. She had a serious and genuine fear of them. She wasn’t alone, either. It’s a rather common fear. If it hadn’t been, King’s IT wouldn’t have been so popular and frightening. She loved horror, but she could never manage to get through that movie, only got part of the way through the book. There was something about clowns that just went beyond simple horror for her. It went straight into phobia, complete with skin crawling and screaming meemies. Just focus on the actual job, she thought. Just look at the edges. Don’t look at what’s in the middle of the painting. Ignore it. She hoped that would work.
As she got to work, she could hear laughter. She wasn’t quite sure where it was coming from. It sounded slightly muffled, like it was coming from another room, but yet was in the same room with her. She figured it must have been coming from up front. She ignored it and kept on working. The guy just wouldn’t quit. Must be a real jovial fellow. It was one of those guffaw types that ran out of breath after a while and went into whiny gasping. She tried to tune it out while she kept her eyes on just the part she was working on. Clowns, she thought. Who the hell thinks clowns are funny? They’re unnatural. They make children cry more often than laugh.
Finally, the laughter cut off. Christine walked in and asked about her progress. “I’d rather be doing anything but this, to be honest. I don’t do well with clowns. Especially this thing. Have you actually taken a look at this? The composition isn’t very good, the colors are off and it’s just plain creepy!”
“Yes, it is ugly. But it is not our job to judge the art. Just to put a frame around it. That is what they pay us for.”
“I know. I just hate looking at this thing. It gives me chills.”
“Well, I am going to leave early. I have an appointment with the doctor. Will you be alright alone with the clown?”
“I guess I’ll just have to be. I really hate this thing,” she said with a resigned sigh. “Hey, what was that guy laughing about so hard?”
“What guy?” Christine asked, her lips pursed and her brow furrowed in true drama queen fashion.
“I don’t know. Whoever that was that came in and did all that gut busting laughter.”
“No! No one came in. It has been quiet since that came in. But do not use that as an excuse to leave early. You know I trust you to stay until close while I am gone.”
“Yes, Christine. I’m not leaving early. Are you sure there was no one out front? I could have sworn it came from there. Or maybe it came from out back. It was driving me nuts.”
“No one was here but me and you. Maybe it came from the vents or the back. I do not know. I have to go or I will be late. See you on Monday.” With that, she left.
Steph hated having to do this piece. If it wasn’t for the fact that it was due so soon, she would be working on something else. Just focus, she told herself. Again, she took a deep breath and started working on it again. Everything was dead quiet, which would normally help her concentrate, but now only served as a distraction. She was considering turning on the radio when she heard the laughter again. She had been listening for the bell, so she didn’t think anyone had come in the front door. It had to be coming from the back. Maybe someone from one of the other shops was in the back taking a smoke break.
Stephania looked at the painting and suddenly felt how completely alone she was. She didn’t like this at all. She decided it was time for a break, so she went out front to look at the traffic go by. The sun glinting off the cars outside reminded her that life was normal. Everything was okay. The painting, albeit creepy, was just oil and canvas. The afternoon sun oozed its way into the storefront windows, slathering her in its velvety light. She realized for the first time how cold she had been, her arms extra sensitive to the warmth because of the raised hairs and goosebumps. She was tempted just to call it a day and run out into the fuzzy blanket of sunlight, climb into her car and go somewhere surrounded by people. It was really starting to itch at her when she heard the laughter again. She thought it was about time she had a look at Mr. Laughypants.
Steph marched herself straight to the back door and flung it open with a word on her lips, ready to hurl it out at the source of her agitation. “What in the world are you laugh-“ Her words were caught out in empty air, like she’d stepped out into a vacuum. Somehow, even the warm air felt cold, the fear like static sliterhing upon her skin so electric she could almost hear it. There was no one to be found. But she could still hear the laughter. Shaking, she went back inside and closed the door, locking it. She went back to the room with the painting to get her purse. She didn’t care how early it was, she was leaving. As she grabbed it, she noticed that the painting was missing something. The early evening was still there. The streetlight was still there. There was no clown.
Out! Out! Out! She couldn’t get out of there fast enough. She figured she could later claim some sort of personal emergency. That was if she even came back. She could find some other job. She had come close to quitting on several occasions. This was quite possibly the last and final straw. She locked the door and practically ran to the car. As she got in and turned the key, the only thing she could think about was telling Fred. She needed to be around him right now. He had an odd sense of humor and sometimes picked at her, but it was all in fun and she was pretty good at dealing with him. When she actually needed him, he was there for her. That was one thing that she could honestly say about him. For all of his joking and all of his groaners, he really loved her and would do what he could to make her feel better. Maybe he could leave work early. She gave him a call on her cell phone and asked if he thought he would be able to get out of work. She tried not to sound frantic, but he could tell by her voice that she was definitely unsettled. She held back her frightened tears because she knew she wouldn’t be able to drive if she let them start flowing now. After a few moments, he informed her that he would indeed be able to be at the door when she showed up and they could start their weekend then.
It seemed like the traffic was too thick for this time of day. She could understand if it was lunch time or rush hour, but it was shortly before four and should be thinner than this. And is it right for every single light to turn red just before she arrives? It made seeing her husband that much more urgent. She really was lucky to have him. How many women could say that? She felt what she thought was an insect on her face and swatted at it, only to discover that it was a trickle of water leaking out of the corner of her eye. She consciously tried not to tremble too much for fear that in combination with her white-nuckling, she might rip the steering wheel off.
She pulled up to Fred’s building and he hobbled out with his walking cast. As he climbed into the car, he tried to lighten what he sensed might be a tense situation, “That excited about starting the weekend, huh? Thought we could play hookey? Go to the mall? Play video games at the arcade?” She just sat there looking at him, unmoved by his silly tone. His face dropped. “Honey, what’s wrong? Gosh, I’m sorry. You look genuinely spooked. What happened?”
Stephania got a little choked up. She opened her mouth to try to tell him about what had happened, but found that only a wail came out. Fred reached his arm around her and pulled her closer to him, “Oh, honey!”
“Fred, it was awful! Some guy came in with a painting of a clown and he wanted it done for the first part of next week and I was the only one who could do it and there was all this laughing and I don’t know where it was coming from and I was all by myself and I had to leave because I just couldn’t take it anymore.”
“You mean you closed up the shop and just left? You really must have been upset. So what happened? I mean I know you hate clowns and everything, but how did you get so scared you’d just up and leave? I’ve never seen you like this.”
“I’ve never been this scared,” Steph sniffed as she started to let herself release. “I kept hearing this laughing and I thought it was coming from up front, but Christine said that no one had come in. Even after she left, I heard it and I couldn’t tell where it was coming from. It just didn’t make any sense. So I thought it might be someone out in the back and when I went out there, there was no one there. I went back to get my purse because there was no way I was sticking around and when I went back for it, the clown was gone!”
“Someone took the painting?”
“No. The painting was still there. The clown was missing from the painting. That’s why I’m so upset. I don’t understand what happened. It doesn’t make any sense.”
“Well, I’m sure someone was just playing a joke on you,” he held her closer and gave her a kiss through her puffy hair, made frizzier by her cold sweat and her running her hands through it. “They probably had another version of the painting where the clown wasn’t in it and switched paintings while you weren’t looking. Or maybe they used disappearing paint or something.”
Stephania just looked at him. “I’m just glad to be away from there. I need you right now. I need you to help me take my mind off of this.”
“Okay, let’s go do something to occupy our minds. Um. We could find a concert for later. Or maybe a movie. There’s supposed to be something really good at the Belcourt.” He looked at her expression to judge how well she was going along with his attempts to find suggestions. “Or we could find something to do a little sooner than that. Um, let’s see. What can be done at four in the afternoon? Okay, we’ll find something to do later. How about right now we just go back to the house and I hold you for a while until you feel better. Okay? You can cry all you want and when you start to feel better we can do something that will take your mind off of everything. How does that sound?”
Steph nodded and wiped away some of her tears. “I think I can drive home now. We’re lucky we don’t have to go far.” She shakily put the car into gear and started to feel like maybe something would be normal. In less than five minutes, they were parked and entering the duplex they called home. After some time to relax and quite a bit of comforting, they decided on a movie at the Belcourt, with a nice dinner beforehand. The movie was a French romantic comedy that proved to be lighthearted and entertaining. In much better spirits, they returned home. Fred asked her if she felt better than she had that afternoon. She said that she did and that she was exhausted and ready to crawl into bed. While she was getting ready for bed, Fred got online and checked his email. She informed him that she was going to go ahead and go to bed and that he could finish up on the computer and come in there when he was done.
She crawled into bed and wrapped the blankets around her staring into the shadows of the room while listening to her husband type, click and chuckle quietly to himself in the next room, the light from the office drizzling light through the hall, diffusing as it slid across the door and onto the foot of the shelf. She began to relax, feeling herself starting to drift off as she sank farther into her pillow. She was between states of consciousness when she heard it again. Muffled, like someone under the bed, she heard the laughter and tensed, barely breathing.
hope you enjoy it!