Whenever Susan Pitt went to the circus a clown died, and she wasn’t entirely sure that it was a coincidence. She mostly thought it was. It had seemed a coincidence when she’d been a little girl, rather less so in her late teens and early twenties. And now she’d turned forty, and the world seemed flatter and greyer and just so very real, and she was firmly of the opinion it was a coincidence after all. Much of the time, anyway. If she stopped to think about it.
Coincidence did seem the most likely explanation. And that’s because: (a) The manner of the clown deaths had nothing in common with each other (save for the fact the clowns did, indeed, die). (b) She never had any personal interaction with the clowns, she did nothing to distract them or alarm them. She just sat in the middle of the crowd, none of the clowns showed any inclination to pick her out from it. Except that last clown, maybe, and that was arguable. (c) Three clowns over a ten year period sounds a lot, but isn’t really enough to establish any pattern, a scientist would want her to kill a fourth clown at least before agreeing there was any precedent.
She hadn’t killed a fourth clown. She hadn’t visited a circus in years.
It wasn’t something that haunted her. She’d been with Greg for twelve years now—six married, six not—and she’d never even brought the matter up. Not even as an anecdote—it wasn’t a subject she avoided, circuses and clowns weren’t things they had natural cause to discuss. He was an estate agent, she worked part time in a bank. She hadn’t even mentioned it on one of those first few dates, when they had both been so awkwardly casting around to find things to say. And that was a shame, because it might have made the date more interesting, and Susan seem more interesting too—and yet not a shame, really, because Greg had married her anyway, so what did it matter? Susan just hadn’t realised that clown death was an arresting topic for conversation. Susan wasn’t really a very gifted conversationalist.
In fact, when it boiled down to it, Susan wasn’t very gifted at anything. She had passed her exams at school, but none with distinction. She could drive a car, but liked to keep off the motorways. They were glad of her attendance at work, but never much noticed when she took a day off. And Greg would come home each and every night and she’d have prepared him a perfectly adequate meal and then they’d have a perfectly adequate evening together, watching TV and holding hands and then going up to bed. “I’m a bit useless,” Susan would sometimes joke, “really, I don’t know why you put up with me!” And Greg might laugh.
And sometimes she’d think of those poor dead clowns, and yes, of course it was all a coincidence. But she might get a frisson of, what? Guilt? Fear? Even a little pride? Because just maybe, somehow, she’d been responsible after all. This was hers. She had a gift. It wasn’t much of a gift, but really, Susan would take what she could get.
The first death was one of her earliest memories. Indeed, it may even have been her earliest. Because all those infant birthdays and infant Christmases, hugging Grandma, learning to walk and sleeping in the cot—she couldn’t be sure they weren’t just stories she’d been told. But no one talked about the clown, and the recollection of his death hadn’t been distorted by pictures in a photo album or repeated anecdote, and some of it was still so clear in Susan’s mind she felt she could almost touch it.
She’d been four years old, maybe five. Her parents had taken her and Connie to the circus. She didn’t know what the occasion had been. Maybe there wasn’t an occasion. She was still young enough her parents would give her treats for no reason. She remembers finding it all a little overwhelming—the huge tent they had to enter, all those people crowded about. Strong smells of animals and candy floss and body odour. She’d been frightened by it, and excited too, and she remembers deciding whether or not to cry or to enjoy herself. She remembers this being a conscious decision. She decided to be happy.
Most of the acts blur into one, and this is where her memories are distorted—lions and trapeze artists and elephants being led round the ring trunk to tail, maybe these are just things she expects from a circus, she’s seen this stuff on TV.
Then there were the clowns.
There were three of them. Or at least three—it isn’t the actual act she remembers so well. There were pratfalls, and they squirted each other with water, there were bits of juggling. What Susan found engaging was that they seemed to be a family. There was one older clown, and the others she took to be his children. The children were sillier and louder than their father, they were the ones who kept falling over and getting wet and being hit by planks of wood. And the father was dismayed by their behaviour, he wanted to take the act seriously. He might try to sing a song, but it would be interrupted by the other clowns’ hi-jinks; his was the juggling that was destroyed by clumsier clowns than him. And each time his good intentions to make the audience happy were vandalised, he bore it as patiently as he could—he shook his head sadly, sighed, looked out at the boys and girls and shrugged. What can you do? he seemed to say. Isn’t this just what life is like? He had a white painted face like the others, but it was almost as if he didn’t know he was wearing it—the joke was on him, at least the rest of the clowns knew they were fools.
And there was this one moment when he had five batons in the air, and there was such a fierce look of concentration on his face—and then it just stopped—and he hadn’t been knocked over by another clown, and he wasn’t distracted by a cream pie to the face—he just stopped, so suddenly, he just gave up. He let the batons fall to the ground. He took a couple of deep breaths, Susan can still see him doing that, and how he put his hand to his chest, and how slow and deliberate those breaths were. And yes, it was still funny, just how seriously he was taking it all, even such a silly little thing like breathing.
He walked slowly to the side of the ring. He righted a stool. He sat on it. The rest of the act carried on around him in its perfect inanity, and he watched it, the stupidity of it made him wince. And that was funny too.
Then, when the act was done, and the other clowns beamed at the audience and took their bows, the old clown didn’t get up to join them, and Susan didn’t find that so funny, she thought it a bit rude.
The clowns left the ring. One of them first went to the old man and offered him his arm, and the old man grasped it, and stumbled to his feet—and even now there might have been some last comic business, the young clown would pull his arm away at the crucial moment and let his exhausted father collapse to the floor. But he didn’t.
At some point later Susan had to leave—it wasn’t anything serious, it was probably for the toilet. Mummy went with her. And they were outside now, and it was dark and it was cold, and Susan could still hear the action going on inside the big top, and she wanted to get back there as soon as possible, she didn’t want to miss a thing. But her attention was drawn to a van with flashing lights that she now knew was an ambulance, and there was a man on a trolley, and she knew it was a man because his hand was peeking out from under the sheet. And two of the clowns were standing near, and they weren’t being silly now, their faces looked so adult like their father’s.
“No, no,” said Mummy. “Come on.” And she gave Susan a little tug, but when Susan refused to move Mummy gave up and let her be.
The clowns saw them, and one of them began a reassuring smile. And then just sort of gave up, and looked away. Mummy took Susan back into the big top, and at the end all the performers appeared in the ring and took a bow—but not the clowns, not any of the clowns, not even the ones who hadn’t died.
Susan found all of this very interesting, and on the way home in the car asked about death, and what happened when people died, and whether Mummy or Daddy would die too. And Mummy and Daddy were behaving very oddly, and were being too nice, and that was silly because Susan wasn’t crying, and Connie wasn’t crying either, Connie never cried about anything.
Daddy began talking about how death happened to us all and that no one knew what it meant or why it happened, and Mummy said, “Shut up, shut up.” And she turned to the girls in the back seat, and she said, “Mummy and Daddy are never going to die, we’ll be here for you forever.” And Susan knew Mummy was trying to be kind, but she was actually fierce and frightening.
The second death was the funny one. Even in Susan’s darker moods, if she thought of the second death she couldn’t help but smile.
This time it was definitely a special occasion—Connie’s twelfth birthday, which would mean that Susan was only nine. Connie said she was too old for a circus, but she was allowed to take four of her school friends with her as guests, and that stopped her complaining. She didn’t want Susan to go too, it was her birthday treat, not Susan’s, and once upon a time Mummy would have told her off for being so unkind, but it was her birthday so she let it ride. Or maybe Mummy was just distracted. Mummy was distracted a lot back then. Anyway, Susan went to the circus as well, and so did Daddy—the marriage was in its final stages, it was probably the last thing they all did together as a family.
The big top wasn’t that big, not as big as Susan remembered from years before. There weren’t any elephants. There was a lion, or maybe it was a tiger, and it seemed old. There was a trapeze artist, but the trapeze wasn’t very high off the ground, and there was a safety net. The clowns weren’t funny.
“It’s boring,” said one of Connie’s friends, and Connie agreed a little too loudly, and an adult sitting a row behind told them to shut up, and Mummy and Daddy let him.
The trapeze artist lost her footing, and fell from the high wire, and somehow missed the safety net altogether, and landed upon one of the clowns. The clown didn’t even look up, that was pretty funny, he’d never even seen what hit him!—even funnier was the way his body was spread-eagled beneath the acrobat’s bulk, arms and legs stuck out like a starfish. It’s almost as if he had planned his death pose for comic effect, it was brilliant, and some of the audience actually clapped before they realised it was an accident. Winded and bemused, the trapeze artist got to her feet. The clown didn’t.
They had to cancel the performance at that point, and Susan’s other main memory of the evening was how angry Daddy became trying to get a refund. “Whatever happened to the saying, ‘the show must go on’?” He didn’t get any money, but at last got a voucher for free tickets for a future performance, and he was happy with this little victory. The family never used them, of course, and besides, the divorce was finalised two months later.
It must be said, neither of these clown deaths had been especially alarming. And it could even be argued there had been some practical benefit to both of them. The first had provided a useful life lesson to Susan at just the right age when she wouldn’t feel threatened by it. The second had cheered up an otherwise disappointing evening.
The third death was something entirely else, and in retrospect, could have been so easily avoided.
“Do you want to go the circus with me?” Connie had asked. Susan was surprised. Connie was seventeen years old now, and wanted as little to do with her younger sister as possible. At best she seemed to find Susan’s existence a pointless irritation, something put upon the Earth to embarrass her in front of her friends. That Connie was speaking to her at all was an honour.
“The circus on the common?”
“What other circus is there? Well, do you want to, or not?”
And the truth was, Susan didn’t really, and very nearly said no—ought to have said no. It was cold and raining. Mum was out having dinner with someone from work—she said it was just dinner, but even Susan knew it was a date. Connie was looking after her, but Susan knew that under normal circumstances she wouldn’t see her sister at all, she’d be barred from the sitting room where Connie would be playing music with her friends; and that didn’t matter, she was resigned to a quiet time on her own, utterly on her own, in her bedroom, just the way she liked it.
Connie looked impatient now, and Susan couldn’t bear that, she didn’t want her sister to get cross. “Yes,” she said. “All right.” And Connie nodded, without a smile, as if she hadn’t been the one who suggested it in the first place, as if Susan now owed her a favour.
They walked to the common, Connie let Susan share her umbrella, but only if Susan agreed to hold it. Even though it was raining, the common was still full of families, of children running about the arcades and getting spattered with mud. “Can I have some candy floss?” asked Susan, and Connie gave a tight smile, and said she could have one later, maybe, if she were good.
Connie paid for both tickets, and that was generous of her. Susan wanted to sit near the front, but Connie preferred the view from above, so that was that.
The circus was called Flick Barker and Son. The twist was that the ringleader was also a clown. He walked into the ring, red coat and tails, white face and gloves, all confidence and charm. He introduced himself, then introduced his son. The son came running on eagerly to join him. The son was dressed the same, but could only have been ten years old. He looked like a midget copy of his father—he stood beside him, looking up at him, beaming with pride and love.
There were no animal acts. Susan knew they had been made illegal some time ago, and she liked animals and knew that was a good thing. But without the animals there would only be people to watch, and they were never as interesting.
After each act the two clowns would emerge from separate sides of the ring, taking the applause as their own. “What do you think of it so far, Little Flick?” the father would ask, and the little clown would roll his eyes and shrug. “Well, don’t worry, we have better acts to come!” Then the older clown would joke about the poor quality of the last performer, and apologise to the audience. The strong man was an ex-convict on the run. The tumbler wasn’t well rehearsed, just drunk. The Russian acrobat girl was someone he’d bought cheap from a dodgy ad in a girlie mag. He’d waggle his fingers, and gurn at the crowd, and people would laugh, but his son would laugh the most of all.
It was supposed to be endearing. To Susan, it seemed fantastically cruel.
The children at school didn’t bully Susan so badly any more. Not since she’d shot up in size, and become so large and lumpen. Not since Claire Hardy had gone that little bit too far, and Susan had lost her temper and thumped her so hard in the face that she’d been bruised for weeks. Susan was put in detention, of course, and a warning letter was written to her mother—but the kids never tried to hurt her again. But still she knew how they despised her, the nicknames they called her behind her back, that they would never be her friends.
She recognised the same streak in the clown. That there was no kindness in him. That for all that he treated the audience as friends in confidence, he despised them. That he despised his son too, there was no love in those big smiles and easy banter.
At last Flick the Elder said to his doting son, “Does nothing satisfy you? Isn’t there any act you might enjoy?”
And the son looked a little bashful, and put his finger shyly in his mouth. And then pointed at his father.
“You want me?” said Flick, in mock surprise. “What do you think, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls? Is it time for the star performance?”
Little Flick led everyone in an affirming cheer.
“All right,” said the clown to the boy, and he put his hand upon the child’s shoulder in what looked very nearly like affection. “Just you wait, son. I’ll give you something that’ll knock your little socks off.”
“Hurrah,” said Little Flick.
“This evening,” Flick told the audience, “we have all witnessed some mediocre juggling, a few magic tricks a child could see through, some stunts barely worth the name. I’m astonished by your patience. I’m astonished you haven’t demanded your money back, started a riot, started a revolution! I thank you. You are kind folk, one and all. You deserve something better. You deserve me.”
He took from his pocket some balls. “Prepare to be amazed,” he said. “Not just three balls. But four!”
He hadn’t thrown the first ball into the air when he suddenly seemed to stop stock-still.
The balls dropped to the ground. And it was so delicious, the smug confidence that had never left his face all evening was gone. Doubt flickered across it, then fear. Susan could see it. The whole audience could see it.
Flick staggered forward a few paces, then stopped again. Didn’t just stop—jerked to a halt, as if his puppet strings had been pulled hard and tight.
Susan stared down at him.
And breaking through his white face—thin and red, it looked like string, no, now fatter than that, worms. Red worms. Struggling out of his skin, and out, out into the spotlight.
Flick began to scream.
And it wasn’t worms, it was blood, but the way it flowed was so thick and wormy!—squeezing out from the face in a dozen different places—the blood was finding the cracks in the make-up, and the force of it was breaking those cracks into fissures, the white face was flaking off and behind it was only red.
The clown put his hands to his face as if to cover his shame. As if to push the blood back inside. As if to, what? As if to tear off the skin itself so it would all stop, stop this, stop this.
And Susan still stared down, and she felt it within her, she knew that she was doing this. This was her gift. And if she could only turn away from him the clown would be all right, the clown wouldn’t have to die. But she couldn’t turn away. She didn’t turn away. Turning away wasn’t part of the gift, the gift had its limits, she didn’t want to turn away. Her forehead throbbed, and it hurt, but it was a good hurt, the pain was so strong and she was the one in control of it. She fumbled blindly for Connie’s hand, but Connie didn’t take it.
“Help me!” cried out Flick, and it was shrill, and it was the last coherent sound he made. Where’s your swagger now, you white-face bastard? You bully. You fraud. He jerked forward again. He swung his body towards the audience. He stabbed out one hand—one finger, he pointed directly to where Susan was sitting.
And maybe the effort was too much for him, because that’s when he finally toppled over. Flat on his face, and that in itself was a mercy.
There was screaming all around, of course, and some people were fighting for the exit. Still more, like Susan, sat dazed and still.
She turned to Connie, and Connie’s eyes were bright and livid, and her face was red, and Susan supposed she was furious. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
“You don’t tell Mum about this,” said Connie. “You don’t tell anyone.”
And there in the ring, little Flick gazed at his father, his own white face hanging limp in comic surprise, still looking so proud, still waiting for an act that would knock his little socks off.
Some years later Susan went to visit Connie at university. Connie was the first in the family ever to win a place at university, and Mum was so proud. Susan sat on a chair of dirty clothes and Connie sat on the bed smoking roll-ups. Some of the dirty clothes belonged to Connie’s boyfriend, and Susan realised that this meant her sister was having sex—it made Connie now seem thrillingly adult, and more distant from her than ever.
They talked about things they had never discussed before, and Susan discovered for the first time how badly Connie had been affected by their parents’ divorce, and by her time at school, and by her whole life in general. Connie said she had issues. Some of them were deep. Susan was proud her sister wanted to confide in her so much.
So Susan decided she confide in her sister too, and said that it still really bothered her about that whole circus thing. Clowns dying and that.
Connie said she had no idea what she was talking about. “Don’t be ridiculous, Susie,” she said. “You’re not special, don’t you go thinking you’re special. Oh, Christ.” And she lit another fag. “I didn’t mean it like that. Don’t cry. Why do you always do this? Why do you always make me say the wrong thing? What’s the matter with you?”
Connie had always complained of headaches. It was a running joke in the family, when Connie was in a bad mood, “Watch out, Connie’s got her bad head on!” Maybe that was why Connie left it too late to go to the doctor. By the time she had been diagnosed with the brain cancer it was all far too late.
Susan went to visit Connie in hospital a few times. She didn’t like to visit too often, she didn’t want to tire her out or irritate her. She could see that each time she sat at her bedside Connie was struggling to be nice to her, to keep any conversation going, to keep her temper—she didn’t like her younger sister, she just wished Susan would leave her the fuck alone. Or maybe that was the pain. It might have been the pain.
On the last visit—and neither of them knew it would be the last, though it was clear Connie had suspicions—Connie seemed a little kinder than usual. She even tried a smile when Susan came in, and she asked how Susan was, asked about Greg, how things were going at work.
“Oh, don’t you worry about me!” said Susan. “You’re the one who needs looking after!”
Connie said, “I need you to do me a big favour. I need you to look after Ruth for me when I’m dead.”
“Oh. Well. Yes, of course.”
“I’m not saying you have to adopt her or anything. I mean, this could be a temporary arrangement, until Ruth finds something better.”
“No, no. I’m sure Greg won’t mind. I mean, I’ll ask him. Yes. He won’t mind.”
“Ruth is a gifted child, Susie.”
“Ruth is a gifted child.”
Susan asked about Mark—she knew Mark was out of the picture romantically, but he was the father, maybe he should be, maybe he would want to . . . Connie said that it had nothing to do with Mark, the hell with Mark, Mark didn’t care whether she and Ruth lived or died.
“I’m sure,” said Susan, “in that case, we’ll be happy to look after Ruth until you’re well again.”
They didn’t say anything else for a while, the two sisters just sat there in silence. Once in a while Connie would close her eyes and Susan thought she might be asleep, and that she could creep away without disturbing her; she’d shift in her seat, she’d even reach for her coat, reach for her handbag—and then Connie would open her eyes again.
“You’ll be wanting to sleep,” said Susan eventually. “You won’t be wanting me here.”
And then Connie reached for Susan’s hand, and Susan was so surprised she didn’t even try to pull back. Connie squeezed the hand as tightly as she could, but there wasn’t much power to it, Susan could have wriggled free if she’d wanted. Susan liked that thought, it comforted her. Connie turned her head on the pillow, faced Susan full on. She looked hard at her sister, and frowned with the effort.
“I do love you,” she said. As if contradicting her, as if Susan had ever said she didn’t.
“Thank you,” said Susan. “You too.”
When Connie died, Greg said he would go and pick up Ruth from the boarding school. Susan could stay at home and get the spare bedroom ready. Should she make the rest of the house look nice too, Susan wondered. Greg said she should do whatever she thought best.
Ruth was six years old, and Susan had seen Ruth every year at Christmas, so that meant, so Susan worked it out, that she had seen Ruth a total of six times. She’d bought Ruth toys each year until Connie had suggested Susan just send her a cheque, and Connie would pick out something more suitable. Susan was always quite interested to find out on her Boxing Day visits what she’d given her niece that year, one time it had been a calculator, the next a stethoscope! Susan thought they were terribly clever presents, and it made her feel clever too that she’d been responsible for them.
And Susan could never quite remember what Ruth looked like, she seemed to change so much from year to year. Never for the better, though—she somehow always managed to stay rather plain. Susan liked that. Plainness meant they had something in common, that they could be friends. And the thought they could be friends made Susan’s stomach lurch, because now she had something to hope for, she really wanted there to be a friendship now and was scared she would do something to spoil it from the start.
When Greg was out she cleaned the house from top to bottom—twice. She rearranged the position of all the furniture in the sitting room and hoped that Ruth would approve. She knew that the girl would be small and confused and grieving, but still hoped that the fact the stereo no longer crowded close to the television set would be some solace.
Susan had told Greg to give her a warning phone call a good ten minutes before they arrived, but he forgot, or didn’t bother, and when she heard his key in the lock she very nearly had a full scale panic; she looked in the mirror, patted down her hair; she sped to the front door; she decided that, no, she’d rather be found in the kitchen.
“Here we are, here we are!” said Greg.
Hair patted down, smooth as you like, Susan came out of the kitchen.
“Hello, hello!” said Susan.
“Hello!” said Greg.
He nodded his head towards the little girl by his side, sort of smiled, sort of presented her with jazz hands, ta-dah! This is Ruth, he didn’t quite end up saying.
Susan felt the absurd urge to give the girl a handshake; she stooped down and offered her a hug. Ruth responded, politely.
“How was the journey?” said Susan.
“It was all right,” said Greg.
“You didn’t run into any weather?” said Susan.
“A spot of rain on the M3,” said Greg.
“I want you to feel at home here,” said Susan. Not to Greg now, but to Ruth. Ruth nodded.
“What would you like for dinner? You must be hungry. You can have your favourite dinner. What’s your favourite?”
Ruth considered this, and concluded she didn’t have a favourite.
“Do you like fish fingers?”
Ruth supposed so.
“We’ll have fish fingers.”
They all ate fish fingers, it was a perfectly adequate meal. And Susan asked Ruth lots of questions. How was school? Was it a nice school? What was her favourite subject? Ruth didn’t have a favourite subject, any more than she had a favourite meal. Susan wondered what it was Ruth was so gifted in, she supposed she’d find out in time.
“I’m so sorry about your Mum,” she said suddenly, and as she did so, tears pricked at her eyes, and she wasn’t really sure why. “Anything I can do. Anything Uncle Greg and I can do. You know. We’re here. We’ll make it better. We’re not going to die, we’ll be here for you forever.” Then she got up to clear away the plates.
Susan asked the bank if she could take time off work to look after her niece, and the supervisor said they could cope very well without her and she could take all the time she needed.
“We can give you new wallpaper,” said Susan. “We can make your bedroom feel like home.” But Ruth said it was all right as it was. “We can go to the cinema today. Do you like the cinema? Do you like shopping?” They went to the cinema, they went shopping, Susan struggled to think of other things she could do with the girl. “What would make you happy?” she asked her as they walked home, and Ruth stopped dead, and thought hard, as if it were a matter of philosophical contemplation, and said she didn’t know.
At the funeral Susan was able to cry a lot, and that made her feel she was doing her sisterly duty. Ruth didn’t shed a tear. And that was just the way Connie had been, Connie hadn’t cried at Daddy’s funeral either, or at Mum’s, and Susan had rather admired it at the time, but now it felt wrong—she looked hard at Ruth’s perfectly dry eyes as the vicar led them into the Lord’s Prayer, and it was Connie’s coldness through and through. Ruth had come to live with them, and she was Connie’s daughter to the core, Susan knew she would never be hers.
“I think there’s something wrong with the girl,” said Susan.
“Give her time,” said Greg. “She’s mourning.”
“I don’t think it’s normal,” said Susan.
And she was almost relieved that night when she woke up to the sound of Ruth screaming in terror.
She ran to Ruth’s room, snapped on the lights. Ruth was sitting up in bed, her eyes wide, brandishing a pillow to protect her.
“She’s here,” she said. “Just like she told me.”
“Mummy,” Ruth whispered, and she couldn’t even look at Susan, there was such horror to it, she could barely speak it out loud.
Susan sat on the bed and opened her arms, and Ruth fell into them. “Mummy’s not here,” said Susan. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
“I saw her.”
“And even if she were here, she would never hurt you. You know that. She loved you.”
Ruth shook her head, then buried it deeper into Susan’s chest, and hugged her aunt more tightly, and Susan liked that, she liked it very much. “Mummy said, the people we kill come back to us.”
“They come back to us. They never stop. They never leave us alone. They’ll hide in the shadows, so sometimes we think they’ve gone. But they’ll come out sooner or later.”
“Why would Mummy tell me if it weren’t true?”
Because your mother was a cruel bitch, Susan thought. And it was like a revelation, she’d never quite let herself think it before, not as bluntly as that, though now it was in her head it was clearly and utterly true. “Sweetie,” she said. “What makes you think you killed your mother?”
“I did kill her. I told her I hated her. I said I wanted her dead.”
“And now she is.”
“Sweetie.” She’d never called anyone that before, and it seemed to fit so well—she mustn’t overuse it, though. She stroked Ruth’s hair. “It’s all right. It’s not your fault.”
She held Ruth for another half hour or so, and called her sweetie a couple more times, and thought, this might be good, this might work. Ruth began to snore. It was nothing like Greg’s snore, he sounded like a bulldozer. Ruth was quiet, and so vulnerable somehow, and she quite broke Susan’s heart.
She tucked Ruth back under the covers, and kissed her on the forehead, and Ruth seemed to squirm happily at that. She turned off the light, she went back to her own bed.
Ruth didn’t have any more nightmares after that. Or, if she did, they were mild enough that she never needed to tell.
But it was from that point that Susan’s own sleep began to be disturbed.
She’d told Ruth it was nonsense—the people we kill do not come back to haunt us. And she could have given her proof. The clowns had never come back to her.
They hide in the shadows, Ruth had said. And there, in the darkness of the room, Greg’s body beside her fast asleep, it did seem to Susan that the room was nothing but a shadow now. Moonlight coming in through the window, a sliver of light from under the door—and everything else black, and getting blacker.
Could it be that poor stupid Susan just hadn’t noticed all the ghosts watching all this time? Stupid Susan, who never got anything right?
And it felt like another truth—something cold and clear and indisputable.
She wasn’t alone. She was never alone. She never had been.
“Are you there?” she whispered.
Her eyes were wide, they strained against the dark.
The first clown tottered forward. He was wheezing. She thought the wheezing had been the wind, all these years she’d heard wind and thought nothing of it. He was so tired. Of course he was. He sat on the end of the bed.
He had already been an old man when he’d had his heart attack nearly forty years ago. “You don’t stop ageing,” he told her. “You never stop. It just goes on and on and on and on and on.” His face was bright white, and some of it was make-up, and some of it the skull beneath.
The second clown was against the wardrobe. His arms and legs were still spread-eagled, and she’d thought he’d looked like a starfish—but it wasn’t that, not that at all, he looked like a spider. A spider missing a few of its legs, maybe—and that wouldn’t be surprising, the body was a broken smear, you’d expect a few pieces here and there would have fallen off. He was so thin too, he’d been squashed flat! He turned to Susan, and it really wasn’t quite as funny as she’d remembered, the mass of him so distorted and wrong—and there was something poking out of his mouth, and she thought it was his guts.
“On and on and on and on,” said the first clown. “The show must go on!”
And even now Susan could cope with this, it was all right, night would pass soon and day would make everything safe and sane once more, there’d be no more shadows and no more dreams. So long as she didn’t have to see the third clown. She shut up her eyes up tight.
She could hear nothing louder than her own panicked breath.
She tried to slow her breathing down.
She could hear nothing.
She tucked herself into Greg’s body, and his arms swung around to hold her, and she thought—they won’t hurt Greg, Greg’s done nothing to them—as if there were some logic at work here, as if ghost clowns follow rules.
There was air on her face, and she thought it might be breath, but it was too cold for breath—and was that a good thing, or did it just mean that the air was dead in the clown’s lungs?—and there was the sound of springs shifting on the bed, but maybe that was just Gary turning over (except he hadn’t turned, had he, she was holding on so tight)—and then, and then—then there was something at her eyelids, pulling at her eyelids, trying to yank them open. Not fingers, surely—not unless the fingers were thin and sharp as toothpicks—but they were tugging now, something wanted her to see. She opened her eyes. She saw.
“The show must go on,” whispered the third clown.
So close, it was as if she had a ringside seat. And he closed his own eyes then, but he didn’t bother with eyelids, not something as simple as that! His trick was better, he rolled them up into his skull—and then he took a deep breath—the cheeks deflated and pressed hard against the broken bones, they got sucked into the cavities, the whole head seemed to flatten with the effort. He puffed out again, hard, and his head swelled once more—his head popped out like a balloon—and out they came with it, out squeezed the red worms. Red and dripping wet and so happy to be free! And Flick the clown was happy too, he wasn’t in pain this time, this was his whole act.
The other dead clowns gave him a round of applause, and Flick put a finger to his lips—they mustn’t make too much noise, Greg was still asleep! The clowns looked admonished. Then Flick stretched out his other hand, just as he had once before, he pointed one finger out at Susan, only this time he was near enough to touch. He did. He did touch.
He stroked her face with that finger, and it was gloved and warm and soft. It was cold and thin and toothpick sharp. Still he stroked, did he envy her that face, that she had a face at all? He spoke to Susan, and his open mouth broke a hole in what was now a mass of blood. “Get some rest,” he said. “Big day tomorrow. Always a big day. The show must go on.”
And Susan slept.
There was no night worse than that first night. On the second, only the old clown appeared. He sat on the bed and muttered to himself for a while, the way old men sometimes do. On the third night he was back again, but he kept his distance and lurked in the darkness. The second clown was there too, draped all across the wardrobe, but he didn’t turn around.
On the fourth night she made the clowns a deal.
The ghosts weren’t visible yet, she knew she could only manage this if she could pretend she were alone. She spoke out to the shadows, to the little patches of darkness.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t know what I was doing. It’s a gift. I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t understand it. I know better now. I will never go to a circus again.”
From that moment on, they seemed to leave her be. Though Susan knew they were with her still, always, hiding just out of sight.
“I know we said we didn’t ever want a kid,” said Greg. “But we seem to have got one. And I couldn’t be happier.”
That wasn’t quite true, Susan thought. They had tried for a child shortly after they’d got married—Greg said that otherwise why had they got married in the first place? And maybe that was the wrong reason. They didn’t put a lot of work into it anyway, it was a pretty desultory effort all round. Whatever happened, the months went by, and Susan never got pregnant—and Greg said, well, it clearly wasn’t meant to be, and gave up on the idea altogether. And no one had said whose fault it was, but Susan expected it had been hers, she’d been the one who wasn’t good enough.
So she said, “We could still try for a baby of our own, if you want.”
And he said, “But we’ve got Ruth, why would we want to bother?”
Ruth had brightened considerably the months since the funeral. She had decided on a favourite meal, and it was spaghetti. She had a favourite subject at school too, and that was storytelling, Ruth liked stories—and she had moved into her new school without a murmur of protest and made friends there immediately. Susan was rather dismayed by how many friends a plain girl could get. Greg had persuaded her to choose new wallpaper for her bedroom, and one weekend Greg and Ruth had been having such fun up there, getting messy, getting stuck to the walls themselves! They’d laughed so much. Susan could hear the laughter all the way downstairs in the kitchen. Once in a while she would bring them up tea and biscuits.
Greg too had never seemed happier. He would rush home from work, and he’d cry out, “Where’s my little girl? Where’s my princess?” And at the beginning Susan would hear him, and her heart would pound, and she thought he’d meant her.
Connie had made provisions in the will for Ruth’s care, and said that she was happy to leave her in the trust of her sister, ‘so long as the authorities judge her capable’. And the authorities made some preliminary visits, and so far it seemed her capability wasn’t in question.
And Susan knew that Ruth being part of the family was a good thing and that it gave the days more shape and focus. And she tried to love Ruth too.
Once she’d asked her about that night. When Ruth told her she’d killed her mother. When Ruth told her how the people we kill come back. And Ruth had just stared at her, as if she had no idea what Susan was talking about. And it reminded Susan of the way Connie had refused to discuss the clowns, and at that moment Ruth had looked exactly like her mother.
“We’re a family,” said Greg. “At last!”—as if there had always been something missing, as if life with Susan had been incomplete. And at weekends it was as a family they went out together, and Greg would indulge Ruth’s every little wish—she could have trips to the seaside, she could have sweets and chips. And when Susan was on her own with her, she made sure Ruth didn’t get her way. It wasn’t cruel. It was only right.
“I love you, Uncle Greg,” she’d say before going to bed, and she’d give him a big hug. “I love you, Auntie Susan.” And Susan got a hug too, but it wasn’t a proper hug, a woman knows.
It would soon be her birthday, and as luck would have it, this year it would fall on a weekend. No school for Ruth, nothing but treats all day! Greg and Susan asked her what she would like to do. Would she want a party, she could invite all her friends? They could do that. They could give her anything she wanted.
“The circus,” she said, with the biggest smile. “I want us to go to the circus, just the three of us.”
There was an ad in the paper, and it was ridiculously small, it had no pictures or anything, there was no way Ruth should have found it. “BamBam Brothers Big Top Spectacular!” it said. “Fun for all the Family!!!”
Susan said no. And Greg didn’t know why she said no, and demanded a good reason, and he folded his arms and waited, and Ruth folded her arms too in imitation. Susan begged Ruth to choose some other treat, and she hated the fact she had to beg a little girl. Ruth said she wanted nothing else.
“My mummy used to take me to the circus,” Ruth said. “We used to go to the circus a lot. Every circus she could find. Sometimes they’d be miles and miles away, we were in the car for hours.”
“You must miss your mother very much,” Greg said. “I mean, your real mother.”
Ruth said nothing.
“We’ll go to the circus,” Greg promised. “We’ll all go. Do you like circuses?”
“Not particularly,” said Ruth.
That night Susan made a new promise to the shadows. “I’ll go to the circus, but I won’t kill anybody,” she said. “There won’t be any trouble.”
The morning of the birthday, and the rain falling so hard. “It’ll brighten later,” Greg said, but it didn’t. By noon there was thunder. Three o’clock, and the clouds were so black it looked like night.
Even Greg suggested that maybe the circus wasn’t such a good idea after all. “But you promised,” said Ruth, and she didn’t plead, she said it quite simply, it was a statement of fact. And there was no denying it.
Susan had been feeling nauseous since the night before, there was a sickness climbing her throat that seemed very real and solid. Her head was pounding. “I’m not well,” she said, trying to sound as reasonable as possible. “Why don’t you both go to the circus without me, and I’ll stay here, and make you spaghetti for afterwards!” It was such a sensible suggestion, and Susan wasn’t quite sure how, even so, she found herself putting on her raincoat and her wellington boots and following the others out to the car.
Ruth got to sit in front with Greg because it was her birthday. Susan sat in the back, cramped and sore. “I’ve never been to a circus before!” said Greg. “I’m excited! Will there be acrobats?”
Ruth said there would indeed be acrobats.
“Will there be clowns?” Greg sang a little circus tune, the screech of the windscreen wipers kept time.
The main roads were clear, no one wanted to be out in such weather. The circus was on a village common some twenty miles away, and soon they had to turn off on to winding country lanes with no lights and no drainage.
“Got to try a different road,” said Greg at one point, when the way forward was flooded. “But don’t worry, we’ll get there!”
“The show must go on,” Ruth agreed.
“This should be it,” said Greg, at last.
He pulled the car off the road. They stared out at the field beside them—dark, sodden, and very empty.
“There’s nothing here,” said Greg. “I’m sorry, princess. Maybe they stopped because of the rain.” But there was no trace of a circus at all, nothing to suggest one had ever been there.
Ruth said they should go and look.
“There’s nothing,” Greg said again. “Susan, did you write down the address properly? No, are you sure?”
Ruth insisted that they must go and look. Maybe the circus was over the hill. Maybe the lights were off. Maybe it was hiding in the dark, deliberately, waiting to pop out at them and give them a jump, that was all part of the fun. She had been to so many circuses with her mother, she had been to hundreds, and sometimes the hiding was all part of the fun.
The family got out of the car. The rain battered down on them. Ruth didn’t seem to mind, she set off across the field purposefully. Susan and Greg followed.
The mud was splashing on to Susan’s legs, rain was getting into her boots. “Five more minutes,” she said to herself. “One more minute. No, hell with it.” She said, “Stop. Stop. Enough.”
Greg and Ruth turned around to look at her. On Greg’s face, at least, there was some sign of relief.
“It’s not here. It’s gone. We’re going home.”
Ruth said, “Just a little longer.”
“We’re going home. Now.” Susan turned, and stomped her way back to the car. She didn’t look round. She just hoped the others were fast behind her. They were.
They reached the car, and got inside, wet and shivering. Ruth looked so disappointed, she looked crushed. Susan wondered whether she was going to cry. For one savage moment she hoped she would.
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” she said. “We did our best, sweetie. You can see we did. It doesn’t matter. We’ll give you another treat, sweetie. Lots of treats, your birthday can last a whole week if you like. But no more circuses, okay? The circuses are done.”
Ruth was silent, and Greg was driving the car, and Susan couldn’t see either of them as she squatted in the back. It was as if she were making a deal with the darkness. She told Ruth she loved her, and then she told her again. She told her she’d make sure this was her best birthday ever.
Roads that had been passable before had now flooded. Greg didn’t find it funny any more. “We’ll find a way home,” he said. “It’ll be all right. Shit.” And all around was the wet and the black.
Until—“Look!” said Ruth, her voice suddenly bright.
And for a moment Susan couldn’t see anything, and she wiped at the steamed window and she squinted out. But there, there across the grass, there were lights, and there was music, there stood a big tent.
“We’ve found a circus after all,” said Ruth.
“But it’s not the circus,” Susan said, stupidly. “It’s a different circus.” And then, rather petulantly, she added, “It’s not fair.”
“Now, I don’t want you to get your hopes up, princess,” said Greg. “We can’t expect it to be open. Not with the weather, and it’s getting late.”
But Ruth had no reason to be disappointed. They got out of the car, back into the rain, back into the mud—and the circus was open, and they were in time, just in time! Ruth jumped up and down in excitement.
“Three tickets, please,” said Greg to the little woman in the booth. The booth hardly balanced on the muddy grass, it listed sharply to the side. If the woman was surprised to see the family turn up out of nowhere, she didn’t show it.
“Not for me,” said Susan. “You go on. I’ll wait in the car.”
“Don’t be so stupid,” said Greg, and his voice sounded as light as ever, but Susan didn’t like the way he was bunching up his fists, she had never seen him do that before.
The posters all around were sodden, they were peeling off the canvas of the big top, they were so hard to read. There was a picture of two beaming clowns—one an adult, one a child. “All the fun of the fair!” the clowns promised. “Traditional Circus—Flick Barker and Son! Roll up, roll up, roll up!”
The tent flap was opened, Susan followed her family inside.
Susan had expected they would be the only members of the audience, but it wasn’t quite as bad as that; there were maybe a dozen other families spread around the huge tent, all waiting for the show to start. Had they planned to come here, or had they been trapped here by the storm as well? “Shall we sit at the front?” asked Greg. “Let’s sit at the front!” And Ruth said no, she preferred the view from above, so that was that.
“I wonder if they sell popcorn,” said Greg.
“This isn’t a cinema.”
“I’m going to look for some popcorn.” And that left Ruth and Susan on their own.
Ruth took her aunt’s hand. “Don’t be scared,” she said.
“I’m not scared,” said Susan.
“Mummy was always scared too, right before the start. But it’s all right. I’ll take care of everything. I have a gift.”
Greg came back with popcorn. “They have everything, you only have to ask,” he said. “Want some?” Susan kneaded her forehead, wished her headache would go away. She said she didn’t want any popcorn.
The lights dimmed. On, on, on with the show.
The music struck up, and it was the same tune Greg had been singing in rhe car, and he began to join in. Susan nudged him sharply, and he shut up.
The clown walked into the ring.
This was Flick. And Susan hadn’t known what to expect. A corpse, probably—yes, a corpse, why not? And his face would be rotting off, and it wouldn’t have got any better after death, would it? Because you don’t stop ageing. You just go on and on and on—there would be worms, of course and blood, plenty of blood. And Susan didn’t mind. She realised she didn’t mind. She wanted it, because it would be out in the open at last, what she had done, what she was capable of doing—the special talents she had never asked for, it wasn’t a gift, it was a curse, of course it was a curse. There would be the dead clown for all the world to see—for Greg and Ruth to see anyway, and at last they would realise how special she was. She wouldn’t be facing the clown’s judgment alone, and whatever he did next, whether he forgave her or took some revenge, at last there would be some end to it.
And so she felt a sudden stab of disappointment when the clown before her wasn’t the one she had killed—he was thinner, and he was smaller. He was weaker in the face, even his welcoming smile was weaker, it was watery and insipid. And he was so very clearly alive—she nearly rose from her seat in her anger, she nearly cried out he was a fraud.
This Flick was the son from before. This was the ten year old boy she had orphaned all those years ago. And he was now grown up, he had a circus all of his own to play with.
He gave a nervous little wave to the audience.
“It’s so good to see you here tonight, ha. Braving the awful weather! And we have quite a show for you. Yes, I am Flick the Clown. And let me introduce my son, the other Flick the Clown!”
There’s a whole bloody dynasty of them, thought Susan, and she actually laughed, and the laugh hurt her aching head, it was like a nail hammered into her skull.
She turned her attention to the side of the ring, expecting another ten year old clown to run on. Instead Flick went to a silver chest upon a stand, and he opened it with something nearly like a flourish, and from it he took a wooden dummy.
The dummy looked uncannily like Flick himself. Not just the white face, red lips, ball nose—nor that he too was wearing the same ringmaster costume.
“My son,” the clown told the little crowd. “Please be nice to him.”
Flick wasn’t a very good ventriloquist. He didn’t even bother to hide his mouth when he made the dummy talk. “So, Little Flick, are you ready for tonight’s show?” “Yes, Daddy Flick, but I hope it’s better than the last one!” “Of course it will be, Little Flick, if all the boys and girls will cheer us on! We’re the finest circus in town!”
And Little Flick turned his head away, and leered straight out at the audience, and said, “It’s rubbish!”
The clown’s act was very much like his father’s. Susan thought she even recognised some of the same jokes. But there were crucial differences. One was in the swagger of the delivery. This Flick didn’t seem to have any confidence at all—where the father had sold the show on a ceaseless tirade of bullying egotism, the son stumbled his way through the routine with shy embarrassment. He sometimes fell so quiet he couldn’t be heard above the spattering of rain upon the tent—“speak up!” yelled some man in the crowd, and that was what got them all laughing. Flick would insult the strong man, say he was an ex-convict; he would claim that the tumbler was a drunk. And then he’d steal a nervous look into the wings, just in case either one might march back into the ring and thump him.
The second difference was that this time the acts really weren’t very good. If the father’s insulting commentary had worked at all, it was because it was pointing at flaws that weren’t actually there. The trapeze artist finished her act, and off she went to all the applause the audience could muster, and Flick said, “I know that tightrope walking three feet off the ground doesn’t look very impressive, but it’s just as skilful as if it were high in the air!” And the dummy was none too impressed with that, and Susan was inclined to agree with it.
What gave her a thrill of horror was this—that here was a man copying his father’s patter, and it was the same patter given as his face had burst open and he’d screamed and died. Here was a man re-enacting his father’s final moments and serving it up as comic entertainment.
For a little while Susan felt sympathy for Flick, and then it was replaced with a burning contempt.
“But don’t you like any of the acts, Little Flick?” the poor clown asked his son. “Isn’t there anything that might satisfy you?” And the dummy squawked, “Why don’t you give it a try?” “Me?” the clown answered himself, trying that same mock surprise his father had got down pat. “But what makes you think I’ll be any better?”
Quite, thought Susan.
Her head had been pounding, and her mouth had been so dry. She was so nauseous. And suddenly all that lifted. The nausea faded, her mouth began to water, she licked at her lips.
And the pain in her head seemed to shrink down to a hard nut just behind the eyes.
Flick picked up some balls to juggle. “Shall I give it a go?” he called out to the crowd. “Yes!” the dummy replied.
Susan stared down at him.
The pain was just as strong, but it had a focus now, and Susan knew this feeling, she knew it. The throb in her forehead seemed to beat out a little message, hey, remember me? She was in control. Something inside had woken up, and she could set it free.
She couldn’t take her eyes off the clown. The clown stopped. The clown shivered.
She clambered to her feet. “Sorry,” she said, to no one in particular, “sorry, I have to get out of here.” The eyes still on the clown, why couldn’t she look away?
Ruth grabbed hold of her arm.
“Let me go,” said Susan.
“Trust me,” said Ruth.
And it was too late now, Susan couldn’t hold it in, the pain was a thin spike breaking out of her head.
The clown couldn’t move. The balls dropped uselessly into the sawdust. Somehow he managed to force his hands upwards towards his face.
“No,” said Susan, out loud, but maybe no one could hear her. She could hear nothing above the shriek in her head. It’s coming out, she thought, it’s coming to the surface—it’s like a worm! And at that she couldn’t help but laugh. And the shriek was at Flick, she was screaming with such anger, he was pathetic, he didn’t even have a son, he couldn’t even have a child of his own, he had to pretend, resort to a lump of wood.
Flick’s face was now held in his hands, he was shaking. Worse, he was crying.
“What’s the matter, Daddy?” asked the puppet. “Don’t give up, Daddy! The show must go on!” And for the first time it looked like it might have spoken for real, the clown had at last bothered to conceal his mouth.
Flick lowered his hands. He was still shaking. His white make-up was streaking, but not with blood, it was streaked with tears. “All you do is undermine me, Little Flick,” he said. “I need to know you believe in me.”
“I believe in you!” said Little Flick.
“Do you promise?”
“We all believe in you! Don’t we, boys and girls?”
“All right then,” said Flick, “all right,” and he stooped, and he picked up the balls. And he began to juggle.
Susan watched him, mesmerised. Not because she had to. She wanted to.
Four balls, five balls, six—and how high in the air he threw them! Catching them every time. He seemed amazed himself. His face was full of joy. “I’m doing it! Watch me, Little Flick, I’m doing it!” Little Flick said, “I’m proud of you, Daddy! Your Daddy would have been proud of you too!” “Do you really think so, Little Flick? Would he have been proud?” “I do! If he were here now, he’d tell you just how proud!” And when the juggling was done, Flick marched up to his wooden son, wrapped him tight in his arms, and gave him the biggest hug.
And Susan’s headache was gone. She felt good. She felt normal. She didn’t understand how she’d stopped herself, but it didn’t matter. She turned to Ruth, and Ruth was her daughter, and she loved her.
Ruth smiled up at Susan. “I said it would be all right.”
“You did! You did!”
“I have a gift,” said Ruth. “Mummy taught me.”
And it was odd how quickly the nausea came back. And the dry mouth. And the pain.
Ruth leaned into Susan, and whispered ever so gently in her ear. “I keep clowns safe,” she said.
Now he’d done his juggling Flick the Clown went on to play the ukulele and did a few falls. He wasn’t very good, but the dummy seemed to like it, and at least he didn’t die.
“I like circuses,” said Greg during the final applause. “I think we should go to another one some day!”
By the time they left the circus the storm had passed. It was still drizzling, but the lightness of the rain was fresh and comforting on Susan’s face, and she wanted to stand outside and bask in it forever. “We have to get home,” said Greg. “Come on. It’s past Ruth’s bedtime.” So they left.
As soon as they got back to the house, Susan went upstairs to her bedroom, closed the door, and sat in the darkness. She called out for the ghosts to appear. She demanded the ghosts appear. They didn’t.
At length there was a knock upon the door.
“Go away,” said Susan.
Ruth came in.
“Don’t turn on the light,” said Susan.
“Does your head hurt?”
Susan didn’t reply.
“I know it hurts. The headaches are so bad, when the power gets all bottled up inside, when it can’t have release. Mummy used to be in such terrible pain. But it does wear off. I promise you. You’ll be all right.”
“You have a gift,” said Susan, dully.
“That’s why Mummy needed me. To stop hers from going too far.”
“What about me? What about my gift?”
Ruth said, “I don’t know.”
“Oh, go to bed,” said Susan, and even now she tried so very hard not to sound unkind.
Ruth closed the door behind her.
Susan called to the ghosts once more. “Was it even me?” she shouted. “Did I kill you? Or was it my bloody sister all the time?” And the ghosts didn’t reply, maybe they were busy, maybe they thought she wasn’t worth bothering with.
Once Greg had fallen asleep beside her, Susan got up, went downstairs, and sat in the kitchen. She made herself a cup of tea, and when she remembered it was there she forced herself to drink it.
“Hey,” said Greg. She hadn’t heard him come down. He was yawning. “Come back to bed.”
“I don’t want her any more,” said Susan.
“You don’t want who?” said Greg, but he knew, he must have known.
He sat down next to her.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. “Everything’s so good. Hey, Susie, look at me.”
“I want her out of my house tomorrow morning.”
“You can’t. Susie. Are you joking? Suze. Hey.”
“I thought I was something special,” Susan said.
Greg had nothing to say to that.
“She goes in the morning,” said Susan. “Do you understand? I don’t care where. I don’t want her here.”
“You know that’s impossible.”
“No. Really, I don’t. You choose. It’s either her or me.”
He just stared at her. She got tired of him staring, it wasn’t even as if he were particularly good at it, he couldn’t do a stare like she could do a stare. Or so she’d thought. So she’d believed. But on he stared, and she decided to close her eyes so she wouldn’t have to watch him do it any longer.
“Greg,” she said. “You know I love you.”
“Just not very much.”
He stayed with her for a while, and at one point he even took her hand, and she didn’t resist. But he let it go at last, and at some point later he got up, and later still he went back to bed. She listened for the door to click shut, and then she was entirely alone.
Upstairs she went. Into Ruth’s bedroom.
Ruth was sleeping with her night light on. Her face was calm. She was smiling.
Susan stood over her. She wanted to wake her. She didn’t want to wake her. And the ache was so bad now, it made her head swim. The mouth, dry like sand. Sick sticking in her throat.
“I am special,” she whispered. She insisted. “I am.”
And then. The sudden relief.
Susan took all the rage she had in her head. All the shame, all the guilt, and the long long years of disappointment. She crushed it into a tiny dense ball of thought. She looked down at her niece.
The throb in her forehead felt so good.
Ruth opened her eyes. There was no surprise in them, and there was no fear.
She stared up at her aunt, and her aunt stared back down, and Susan wondered who would be the first to flinch, and promised herself it wouldn’t be her, she wouldn’t let it be her, it must never ever ever be her.
Originally published in Horrology, edited by Stephen Jones.