“Jesus, could they make this place any harder to find?” Larry Bumpolowski said aloud as the station wagon, all decked out in red, yellow and blue, ground to a halt at the end of the rutted gravel driveway. The dashboard clock read 7:13pm.
He checked his face in the mirror, gave his nose a quick squeeze for luck, then was off and loping towards the door, tool-bag slapping his backside with each gallumphing stride. The door opened as he approached and he strode through without pause, ignoring the accusatory voice coming from the tall, dark-haired woman.
“I said seven o’clock!”
Sue me, Larry thought. Should have given me better directions to this spook-house then!
He bent his knees, arms spreading wide, kicking his feet out in front of him as he walked.
Maybe if I put some zip into it I’ll still get a tip out of all this.
He burst through the doorway to find an even dozen seated around a long table, all looking up at his entrance in surprise and anticipation. Larry froze, crouching, hands still spread; an old gunfighter’s stance.One deep breath and went for a straight speed-draw, hands slapping holsters and pulling out… horns.
“Say hello to your Uncle Bumpo!” he shrieked, drawing the last syllable out into a war cry as he honked both horns in a wild cacophony. He took off, high-stepping around the room, feet flapping as he ran, battery-powered tie lit up and spinning, firing his horns toward the ceiling again and again like an over-excited bandito in an old western. He stopped, facing the table in a crouch once more, horns still drawn.
The twelve young children seated there merely smiled, offering polite applause.
What is this? Larry thought. A tough crowd of seven-year-olds?
He holstered the horns, striding over to the birthday girl, obvious in her throne-like chair at the head of the table, huge red shoes forcing him to adopt an indignant waddle.
“S’matter, kid? Aintcha never seen a clown up close before?”
As he spoke the tie spun again, tiny bowler hat rising and falling on his head in well-haberdashed push-ups.
The girl continued to smile in a bored fashion, her eyes looking somehow… wrong to Larry. She yawned behind a polite little hand.
“More than you could possibly imagine.”
She looked past Larry, to where the woman who had opened the door for him waited, and watched.
“Can we get on with this, please, Mistress? I’m hungry.”
The way her little girl voice came out of her little girl mouth with such adult inflections gave Larry the creeps. And those eyes… He decided to get on with it, like the little lady said. Then maybe he could get out of there faster.
Screw the tip.
“Okay, kiddies!” He stepped back, rummaging through the messenger bag still riding his shoulder. “I know you all want to get to everyone’s favorite part of this little shindig — the cake! So lets get this show on the road! Here ya go!”
He stalked the length of the table, handing out Crazy Straws, the tubes shaped like little animals.
“Take a straw, take a straw, everybody gets a straw!”
Larry passed out a dozen straws, avoiding the silent stares of the strange, pale children. Their eyes, like those of the birthday girl, made him feel disconcerted.
“Okay,” he said, facing the table but keeping his gaze on his hands as he stretched out a balloon. “Everybody hold up their animal straws, and if I can’t make you a matching balloon in 30 seconds or less—”
“Mistress,” interrupted the birthday girl, “do we have to?”
“Of course not, Alexandria,” came the woman’s rich, slightly accented voice. “Mr. Bumpolowski, would you look here for a moment?”
Surprised to hear his real name used in front of the kids, Larry looked up to find the woman leaning over the table toward him. There was something about her eyes… well, they were like the children’s eyes, but they were more… kind of… it was so hard to describe…
“Please,” she patted the table before her, “lie down. Right here.”
Strange thing to ask, he thought, but what could it hurt? Besides, I’ll be closer to her… and those amazing eyes…
He climbed up and stretched out on the table before the twelve children, staring into the Mistress’s eyes, trying to figure out just what was so different…
“Come now, children, bring your straws,” came the woman’s voice. Larry saw her hand come up, holding a knitting needle. The hand came down, plunging the needle into his chest. Again. Again. Twelve times in all. He supposed it must have hurt, but he was so focused, so close to figuring out what it was about her eyes. He didn’t even mind when the children gathered about him, thrusting their Crazy Straws into the fresh, seeping holes in his flesh, and began to suck, and suck… until everything, even the Mistress’s burning, beautiful eyes, faded into blackness…
* * * * *
Larry sat up groggily. He looked about, everything blurry and indistinct. He felt blurry and indistinct. He floated upward, and that seemed somehow… right. Below him lay a man in familiar clown makeup, a dozen straws poking up through the polka-dotted outfit, one for each child gathered around the table he sprawled upon.
“Did this taste funny to you?” said Alexandria. The children, mouths red and dripping, giggled, the sound both childish and obscene, only stopping when the Mistress spoke.
“Charles, your birthday is next month, correct?”
The phone book on her lap was open to the Yellow Pages, and she was drawing a red X through an advertisement. The page was covered with X’s.
“It seems we’re out of clowns, Charles.”
She flipped a few pages ahead in the book.
“How about a nice magician for your birthday party? Doesn’t that just sound… delicious?”