Published in Suspense Magazine.
He walked into the prison wearing someone else’s face. The person people thought they saw actually lay bound and unconscious on his living room floor, unaware of what the impostor had planned.
He had watched the guard for three weeks, taking note of his movements and mannerisms, listening to his voice and the songs he whistled with a wavering tune. By now, the disguise was perfect. Skin colored putty had fleshed out his pale skin, making his nose long and wide and deepening his normally sunken cheeks. He had changed his stride to give himself a slight limp. He even whistled “Oh Susanna” to himself when he thought no one else was watching. Only the impostor’s pale gray eyes showed a difference.
He walked slowly through prison halls, nodding to his fellow guards as he passed them and working his way through winding corridors that he had previously seen only in stolen floor plans. He gained his bearings quickly, though, and then made his way toward his target. As darkness crept through the skies outside, he found himself approaching the cell block. He looked behind him, making sure that no one was following. Finally convinced he was alone, he removed the putty he had so carefully applied, revealing his own pale skin. He needed his own face for this, and no one else’s.
The prisoner was napping when the faux guard banged on the cell bars. The man inside the cell sat up in his cot with a start at the noise. The once-powerful man had grown old. Wrinkles marked his face and his skin had a sickly yellow tone. This man wasn’t a monster anymore. He was a diseased animal, waiting to be put down.
“I still have another day before they pull the switch,” said the prisoner.
The stranger said nothing. He rattled the keys and placed one into the lock on the cell door, opening it up. Then he stepped inside.
“What’s this?” asked the prisoner. “What do you want?”
“Ernest MacIntyre,” said the stranger. It was a statement, not a question.
“Yeah, that’s me. Am I getting transferred or something?”
“Do you recognize me?” The stranger stepped forward and turned on the cell’s lone light. An incandescent orange glow washed over his features. The stranger’s eyes captured the glow for an instant and shined yellow like a wolf.
“I…” began Ernest. Then he gasped. His face went pale. “T-Tobias?”
The stranger nodded. “It’s time we had a talk.”
The last conversation had been one-sided. An angry father, tongue slurred by alcohol. A twelve-year old boy, face caked with dry tears, mind stopped in shock.
“Wake up,” the father yelled. “You’re not dead. Wake up!”
Kneeling, he struck the prone woman lying on the chest – the sound of a fist pounding cold meat.
Elise MacIntyre stared at her son with blue-gray eyes. Her son stared back. Silently, he called out the same pleas. Get up, Mom. This isn’t funny. He didn’t give the cries a voice, though. He didn’t want to draw the ire of his father’s attention.
Finally, his father stopped shouting. He looked at his son with a bewildered stare. He glanced at the handcuffs he had slapped around the child’s wrist to lock him to the radiator when the fight first began. They were for his protection, he had said. The boy would have gotten hurt if he had gotten in the way.
“Not my fault,” he said to nobody.
He looked at his son one last time. Then he turned and stumbled out the door, leaving the boy alone with a mother who couldn’t get up.
Tobias stared at his mother’s face, white and cold like a porcelain doll. Her eyes looked like glass, still shining with the tears of the fight. The fibers of their living room’s brown carpet had left marks on her left cheek. She hadn’t taken a breath in fifteen minutes. He strained to touch her, but she lay just out of reach, her neck at an unnatural angle.
The boy tugged at the chain of the handcuffs. He strained his twelve year-old muscles as hard as he could, but he couldn’t break free. He wanted to crawl across the small space between himself and his mother – to say that he was sorry.
A car sped by outside. Maybe it was a police car. Maybe they would catch his father. He tried to call out, but his voice had disappeared. His body felt wrinkled and dry from all the tears. There was nothing left inside. All he could do was watch his mother not move. He would remain alone with her, undiscovered for days.
He slept fitfully the first day and night. His stomach growled and his body ached from dehydration. His mother’s corpse became bloated with the gases inside her, swelled up with the breath of decay. On the second day, the vermin came. He tried to pretend that he couldn’t hear the buzzing flies, that the rats crawling from their holes in the wall weren’t taking pieces of his mother back to their lair. He wanted to reach out and grab the largest of them as they crawled near him – he needed something, anything to swallow down for food. But he didn’t. By now he had figured out how he could escape.
After three days without food or water, he had gotten thin enough to squirm free of the handcuffs. His wrist popped out of joint as he gave the last twist that enabled him to escape. Ignoring the pain, he focused instead on his mother’s decaying face. He considered shooing the flies away, leaning in to kiss her one last time. But her eye sockets were empty now. She wasn’t his mother anymore. In death, she nurtured many tiny lives. In life, she had failed to save her own.
He touched his mother’s hand one last time. Then he stood up and walked out the door.
“You’ve come to rescue me,” said Ernest.
Tobias tilted his head, puzzled by the notion. “Why would I do that?”
Ernest sat up on the cot, his back rigid against the wall of his cell. “Because I’m your father. And because I wouldn’t be here in the first place if it wasn’t for you. I told the police I hadn’t killed you. But you just vanished. They couldn’t find a body, so they just figured I had tossed you in a river somewhere. As if I’m that kind of a cold-hearted bastard.”
He stood up and paced around his cell as he continued speaking. “That’s not how it works. If there was no body, there was no murder. It’s in the damned Constitution! But the jury wouldn’t listen. They didn’t even know the law, and they sentenced me to death for a murder I didn’t commit.”
Tobias hadn’t moved once during the old man’s rant. “Whether you killed me or not, there was still a corpse. My mother. Your wife. I watched her rot.”
“Liar!” Ernest spun toward his son, wild-eyed and furious. “She was playing possum. I didn’t kill her. If she died, it was you who did it!”
Hot fury boiled inside Tobias, but it came out cold. He sprang forward, unafraid of the man he once saw as a monster. One hand grabbed his father’s wrist, bending it backwards. The other clamped over his mouth, stifling the old man’s scream of pain. Ernest’s knees buckled under the strength of his son. His wrist popped. Sweat and tears pooled together in the corners of his eyes.
“You…you just broke my wrist,” he whimpered when his son released him.
“No. I dislocated it. You can pop the joint back in place if you try. I learned how.”
At the age of sixteen, his wrist still clicked when he rotated it a certain way. It was a minor inconvenience, if that, and one that didn’t hinder his chosen profession. He had come to Europe two years prior, hiding aboard a shipment of fruit bound across the Atlantic. Living as a beggar first, he soon learned that people chose to ignore him. That ignorance became a tool he used, and that tool was about to get him the job he needed.
“You have two dozen people walking the circus grounds right now,” he told the gray-haired man sitting behind a desk. As he spoke, he pulled one item after another from his pockets – a handful of coins, a plastic comb, and old photograph, and more. “I have something from each of their pockets.”
Peter Zaleski took a long drag on his cigar and blew the smoke high into the air, letting it hang over the boy’s head. “Are you working for the police, boy?”
“Then why are you so interested in me and my circus?”
After emptying his pockets onto Zaleski’s desk, the boy stood with his hands at his sides. “Your circus travels all over Europe,” he said in German. “Your performers do a little bit of everything. I want to learn that.”
“Learn what? Everything?”
“Yes,” said the boy brazenly. “I want to learn everything, and I want to know how to become anyone.”
Zaleski gave a guttural laugh that emanated from deep within his rotund belly. “That’s a tall order for a boy. What skills do you have that would interest me?”
“I can juggle,” he said, starting with one of the few activities that had kept him sane in a cargo hold full of fruit. “I know about the art of distraction, and I know how to pick pockets.”
“I see you have a few tricks,” said Zaleski, gesturing toward the heap of trinkets on his desk. “But if you’re sloppy, you’ll draw the police to me.”
“I’ve been on my own since I was twelve. I’ve never been caught.”
Zaleski took another drag of his cigar and furrowed his brow in thought. “What did you say your name was, boy?”
“Do you have a last name?”
“It’s just Mack.”
“Well, for now it will be Mack the Clown. You’ll wear whiteface and a painted smile…not that your skin can get any paler than it is already.” Zaleski chuckled at his joke. Mack didn’t. “Your performances will bring an audience. If they don’t pay you coin, you use your skills to find some in their pockets.”
“Then welcome aboard, Mack the Clown.”
Mack bowed curtly and turned to leave the room. Zaleski called out from behind him.
“One more thing, boy…” he gestured again at the pile of debris on his desk before sweeping all but the coins into a wastebasket. “I want money. I don’t care about these other trinkets.”
Mack nodded and left, suddenly employed.
The circus grounds seemed dismal and gray, much like the muddy European countryside they traveled at this time of the year. A few tents lingered on the cloudy horizon and the smell of mangy animals hung in the air. Mack’s eyes trailed across the acts as he walked. Men on tightropes – he would have to learn how to balance himself like them. Another performer threw knives at his assistant, missing him by the width of a hair, all to the crowd’s wonderment. That would be a useful skill indeed.
“Are you the new fellow?” asked a woman’s voice. Mack turned his head away from the performers to a plump woman who had just poked her head out of a nearby tent. She looked no more than a few years older than he, with raven-colored hair that fell to the middle of her back and green eyes offset by her olive colored skin. The cheerful glint in her eyes seemed foreign to Mack.
“I am, once Mr. Zaleski gives me a wagon to keep my things. How did you know?”
She stepped out of the tent with an easy stride, revealing a dark violet dress. “I’m Rosa, the fortune teller. I know everything, past and future.”
“What about present?”
She grinned, showing off the pale beige of her teeth. “If I knew everything about the present, I wouldn’t have had to ask you, would I?”
“I suppose not.”
“Here,” she said, drawing a deck of yellowed cards from the folds of her oversized sleeves. “Pick a card.”
“Is this my fortune?”
“I have to know about the new boy, don’t I?” She cut the cards once, and then offered the deck to Mack. He drew the top card.
“It’s just blackness,” he said, turning it over to reveal an empty void.
Rosa frowned and nodded. “How sad,” she said.
“What does it mean?”
“It means you take yourself much too seriously,” she said, gently punching him in the arm. “I had you picked as a lonely scarecrow the first time I saw you. The void is a perfect fit.”
“You stacked the deck?”
Rosa nodded. “Here, give me the card again.” She took the black card from Mack and shuffled it back into the deck. Then she cut at a seemingly random place, revealing the void. Her smile grew wider as she shuffled again, only to bring the void back to the top. “Reading people is the same as reading their fortune. I can pick any card that fits them, and I know how to make it appear wherever I want in the deck.”
“Isn’t that sort of cheating?”
“One thing you’ll learn here at Zaleski’s Circus is that everyone cheats all the time. You didn’t think Mr. Zaleski hired you just to perform, did you?”
“No, I suppose not. Can I cut the cards?”
“Go ahead. You’ll still draw the void if I want you to.”
Mack took the deck from Rosa and cut the cards. Then he handed the deck back to her. “Go ahead…tell my fortune now.”
Rosa shuffled the cards again and turned the top one over. This time, though, the card revealed a crumbled tower, not the black void.
“That…is the card of ruin,” said Rosa, her smile fading from her face. “Where is the void?”
Mack held out his hand and flicked his wrist. The card appeared from the sleeve of his gray jacket. He handed it back to Rosa, bowed, and then began walking again.
“What’s your name?” Rosa called after him.
“Is that your real name?”
“You’re the fortune teller,” he called back. “Why don’t you tell me?”
Ernest gave a loud groan as his wrist popped back into place. He crawled on his hands and knees back to his cot, using that stiff bed as a prop to get him back to his feet.
“See? You learned how to survive,” he told his son through clenched teeth. “You owe me for that.”
“You left me to starve to death while you vomited up stale beer on a cop’s shoes,” said Tobias. “I owe you nothing.”
“I gave you life, you little bastard! I protected you and your mother both. Twelve years you lived under my roof. Fifteen years for your mother. Who had the job? Me. Who paid the bills? Me. You two leeched off of the money I gave you. All I wanted was a drink and some time alone once in a while.”
“You could have had all the drinks you wanted,” said Tobias. He felt something in his throat, swallowed, and took a deep breath. He couldn’t crack now. “That night, she was going to leave you. She was going to take me and we were going to run as far away as we could.”
The old man smiled a devil’s grin at his son. He stood tall and took a step forward. “And why didn’t she?”
A waking dream danced behind Tobias’ eyes – a dream of weakness and futility. “Because I didn’t want to leave,” he admitted.
“You wanted to keep the comforts of home. You wanted to play out back on the swing set I built for you. You wanted to throw the football I bought for you. You didn’t want to give up the life I had given you. You depended on me, whether you want to admit it or not.”
Slowly, Tobias nodded.
“You didn’t come here to blame me. You came here looking for forgiveness.” Ernest gestured toward the door behind his son. “Set me free, and I’ll forgive everything.”
Ernest took a step toward the cell door. Tobias put a strong hand on his father’s chest and pushed him back.
“I don’t need your forgiveness.”
A knock at the door pulled Mack away from long moments of staring into the mirror. He had been watching his twenty-year old face for the past five minutes, taking mental notes as to how he could change it – how he could become someone else.
“Mack? It’s Rosa.”
The fortune teller had come to deliver his newspapers again. He glanced one last time at the mirror before moving to the door.
He lived in a four-wheeled home, a traveling cart that served as sleeping quarters and storage for his costumes and props. He had become more than Mack the Clown in his years with the circus. Among other skills, the art of disguise had become his domain. With some makeup and putty, he could make himself look like somebody else entirely. But still, he wanted more.
He crossed the room in four long strides and opened the door. Rosa greeted him with her customary smile that he never returned. She had a bound stack of newspapers tucked under her arm, which she presented immediately.
“Your papers came in.”
He nodded and took the heavy parcel. “Thank you, Rosa.” He sketched a curt bow and then started to close the wooden door. Rosa pushed her arm in between the door and the frame, stopping him.
“Can I come in for a moment?” she asked.
He narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “Why would you want to?”
“Is there something wrong with wanting to talk to you for a bit?”
“Not wrong. Just…strange.”
“Can I come in?” she asked again, her eyes wide and murky. “Please?”
Hesitantly, Mack nodded and opened the door for her.
The quarters were small, but they didn’t seem cramped as she stepped up the two stairs and into the wagon. Mack set the newspapers down in the corner, next to a stack at least twice their height. Rosa sat on the bed while he made sure the papers lay perfectly flush with the wall.
The fortune teller remained quiet as Mack stacked the newspapers compulsively. Her eyes drifted across the walls of the wagon while she waited. The space next to the mirror held a dozen or more nails, each with some odd article dangling from them. She saw noses and ears made of wax, lumps of skin-colored putty, and horse-hair wigs. On a wooden table next to the table sat a set of teeth soaking in a jar of water.
“You have dentures?”
“No,” said Mack. “They’re just some fake teeth I bought. They’re supposed to shape my pallet differently – give me a different voice when I learn how to speak properly with them.”
“Why would you need to do that?”
“Sometimes I just think it might be nice to be someone else for a while.”
“Is that why you spend so much time trying to learn new acts? I’ve seen you walking the tightrope at night and talking to the lions when you think nobody is looking.”
Mack cocked an eyebrow. “Have you been spying on me, Rosa?”
Rosa grinned. She raised her hand to her face, holding her thumb and index finger half an inch apart. “Maybe a little.”
“I don’t know. Maybe I want to know why you get those newspapers delivered every week. Or maybe I just think there’s something strange about a clown who won’t smile.”
“I don’t have to smile. People always look at the makeup, not my face.”
“Is that the way you want it?”
“I’m happy being a chameleon, yes.”
Rosa nodded and smoothed out her dress. She looked at the floor between her feet for a long while.
“What’s the matter, Rosa?”
“I have to tell you something, but I don’t know exactly how it should come out. And I have to tell you it tonight.”
“Because, Tobias, you won’t be here in the morning.”
Mack stopped breathing for a full five seconds. He hadn’t heard anybody use his real name in years. He didn’t even use it when he spoke to himself.
“How do you know that name?”
Rosa looked away from the floor, the shade of seriousness fading away from her face. She smiled widely, her full cheeks and chin folding in on themselves slightly with the expression. “I’m the fortune teller. I know everybody’s secrets.”
“Or you’ve been spying on me more than I expected.”
She shrugged, still not menaced by Mack’s suddenly grim glare. “Maybe you did pique my curiosity a bit more than I let on. I might have been looking through your newspapers before I deliver them, and I might have given them a casual look through again after you’ve thrown them out.”
Mack took in a long, hissing breath of realization. “And if you did do that, you would have found the one common thread between the papers I threw out and the ones I kept.”
“I prefer people to think I looked into a crystal ball and divined the truth,” she said, twirling her hair innocently. “And I’d also prefer it if you believe me when I say I meant no harm by it.”
Mack kept his arms by his side, rigid as a stone statue. “I should be angry with you.”
“But you don’t get angry, do you?”
He closed his eyes briefly, viewing shadows from the past. Shouts and tears. A fist upon bare skin. His fault.
“Anger is useless,” he said upon opening his eyes. “It lacks focus, takes away a person’s control.”
“So what do you feel instead?”
Mack swallowed. “I try to feel nothing.”
Rosa slid over on the bed, then patted the area next to her. Unaccustomed to such an invitation, Mack followed the gesture rigidly, nearly stumbling as he sat down next to her. Once she had him next to her, she lifted her hands to his face, touching each cheek and turning his head until he was eye to eye with her. Mack’s cheeks were warm, his face pinker than normal.
“I read horror stories in those papers of yours,” she said. “It took me a long time to notice the pattern. Then I started looking for the stories about Ernest MacIntyre. He killed his wife in a drunken rage, and his only son was never found. Most people think he murdered the boy, too. But what if he didn’t? If that boy had lived, what would he have done?”
“He would have wanted to make sense of it,” said Mack in a whisper.
“Is that all? Would he ask questions, or would he train for revenge?”
Mack touched Rosa’s wrists. His skin was cold. Reluctantly, he pulled her hands away, but did not break eye contact.
“I wanted revenge at first. That’s why I came here. People come from miles around to see men play with fire and dance with knives. They think it’s entertainment. They don’t realize how easily that entertainment can be turned into a weapon…like I wanted to make it.”
“You wanted to, but you don’t now? Have you given up on revenge?”
“To seek revenge, you need to know your target. I’ve had years to think it over, and I’ve realized that it’s not all his fault. But I still want to hear him admit his part in it. I want to know that he knows he killed her.” He closed his eyes and then opened them again, slipping from past back to present in one brief motion. “I can’t…I can’t be the only one who carries this guilt…”
Rosa placed a hand against Mack’s lips and shook her head. Neither of them said anything for a very long time. Then the fortune teller put her arms around Mack’s shoulders, drawing him closer until his face rested against her shoulder.
“You didn’t hurt your mother.” She lifted his head and looked at him again. His eyes were dry but red around the edges. Then she leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead. “You don’t need forgiveness. There’s nothing to forgive. Only one person harmed her that night, and it wasn’t you.”
A cloud seemed to pass over Mack’s face. His eyes returned to their slate gray calmness, and the tension disappeared from his body with Rosa’s words.
“I read in one of the papers today that Ernest MacIntyre lost his final appeal in court,” Rosa said. “His execution date has been set. That’s why you’ll be gone tomorrow.”
Mack looked at the pile of newspapers. Then he nodded.
“Will you stay and talk with me for a while?” he asked.
Rosa nodded and put her hand on Mack’s knee. “Of course I will, Tobias.”
The next day, the clown didn’t show up for his performance. His caravan had been emptied out except for a pile of old newspapers. None of the other circus workers could imagine where Mack had disappeared to. Only the fortune teller seemed to know anything. Even then, she only gave her usual sad, mysterious smile when asked.
“What do you want?” shouted Ernest McIntyre. “You say you don’t need forgiveness. What then? What do you want from me?!”
Tobias turned his head, watching the loud voice echo down the hallway. That would cost him time. Then he looked back into his father’s face, but said nothing.
Sweat rolled down Ernest’s cheeks. He tried to clench his fist in response to the child’s insolence, but his right hand still ached too much from his injured wrist.
“I am your father,” he said in a hiss. “I took care of you and your mother. And how do you repay me? By gloating as they strap me into the electric chair?”
“I won’t be at the execution tomorrow,” said Tobias. “No one knows I’m alive, and I like it that way.”
“Then why risk it all to come here?”
“I wanted to give you a chance.”
“A chance to do what?”
Tobias thought of Rosa, wishing he could channel the fortune teller’s empathy. “To earn forgiveness. To accept what you’ve done.” He blinked once, trying to make sure his mask of stoicism wouldn’t slip. “I want you to say you’re sorry.”
Ernest turned away from his son, staring at the concrete wall that had become his final home. His arms trembled, then stopped. Finally, he turned around to look at his son again. His face became as emotionless as his would-be savior, his eyes as dead as they would become after his execution.
“It’s not my fault,” he hissed. “I did what was best for the family. I always tried to do what was best.”
His expectations dashed, Tobias felt a child’s rage burn inside him. He grabbed his father by the collar, his eyes blazing. “That’s wrong!” he yelled, not caring who else heard him. “You did it! I saw you! Why won’t you admit it?!”
Sweat rolling down his face, Ernest still shook his head. “Never. I won’t say those words.”
Tobias blinked once, retreating back within himself. He looked at his hands as they pushed his father backwards, releasing him. Foolish. The outburst had cost him the rest of the time he had. But he had gained something.
“You won’t say those words,” he said, his voice returning to his corpse-like calm. “But you know you should. You protest so much because you know what you did. And when they ask you for your last words tomorrow, when you think to call out to your son and finally ask for forgiveness, he won’t be there.”
Tobias turned out the light and took two large steps backwards, taking him out of his father’s cell.
“You can’t leave yet, boy,” said Ernest. “You have to help set me free.”
Tobias said nothing. He only gripped the bars of the cell door, preparing to slide it shut. Ernest leapt forward, but his son acted faster. With a clanging of metal, the door shut tightly, locking the murderer inside.
“You can’t do this!” howled Ernest. “You are my son!”
“I’m not your son. You left your son to die. Now I’m returning the favor.”
Tobias gave one last look to his wild father, letting the final traces of emotion flicker across his face and die. Then he stepped away, walking quickly down the corridor as guards approached from the opposite end. He thought of his mother, and he thought of Rosa. The card of ruin. He had just watched the last remains of his life crumble away. Now it was time to rebuild.
Image: Window Light, by Dawn Hudson