Updated: May 28, 2020
Wind screeched through the town, whipping sand around the empty streets. Heat radiated up from the cracked concrete, riddled with dried up weeds.
Mark looked over the abandoned downtown strip from his office window. The only ones left were either too stubborn or too old to move. His town wasn’t dying, it was already dead. Mark pulled the wire glasses from his wrinkled face, wiping them on his shirt tail. Where had it all gone wrong?
Mark poured his heart and soul into building this town from the ground up. He built his first business on the downtown strip with his own two hands. Later he helped countless others do the same. Markets, hardware stores, salons, boutiques, schools, and townhouses grew across his flourishing town. Young families came to live there, breathing life into the desert oasis, and Mark fell in love with a wonderful woman named Susan and they had a daughter of their own. Mark had never been happier.
Mark invested in new businesses, and a traveling circus that came to visit them at least once every summer. His town became so prosperous, they were the first town in Oklahoma to buy one of those fancy new automatic car washes all the way from Detroit. Then the accident happened.
Susan was doing maintenance on the car wash, when it was turned on. Her loose over-all strap got caught in one of the gears. It all happened so fast, she didn’t have time to break free, and the employees didn’t have time to turn the car-wash off. Mark's life was shattered in an instant.
Mark grieved for his lost love, but he did not let it consume him, he couldn’t. He turned his attentions to caring for his daughter, who was only seven at the time, and to taking care of his town, his family. Mark would be forever grateful to his people who saw him and his daughter through their darkest days.
Mark eventually returned to business, but something happened to his town. People began disappearing, businesses closed, and families moved away. It was as if his town was poisoned, slowly rotting from the inside out. Mark tried for years to fix it, to cut away the rotting flesh; but there was always more fear, more rot to cut away.
Mark pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. Looking down at his hands Mark sighed. His joints were swollen and twisted, his face creased and weathered with age. His every movement ached, and he was tired through to his old bones and into his weary soul.
He checked his wristwatch; it was half-past eight, if he left now he would be there before lunch. Mark went to his desk phone and dialed the familiar number.
“Hello?” A sweet voice cracked through the receiver.
“Hi Lucy. I’ve decided to do it.”
“You sure dad?”
“I’ve already packed up my suitcase. I’ll be there before noon.”
“Why don’t I come and get you? I’m not sure I want you driving all that way alone.”
“One last drive, then I’ll hang up the keys after I move in with you and Dan.” Mark could hear his daughter’s disapproval through the phone.
“What about all your stuff; don’t you want help moving?”
“I’m old Luc, and I’m tired. I don’t need much that you and Dan don’t already have. I’ve got my slippers and my meds packed and I’m wearin’ my underwears.” Mark laughed at his own joke, while his daughter clicked her tongue on the other end.
“I still don’t like the idea of you driving by yourself.”
“Tell you what, if I’m not there by noon, you can call the cops on me. Remember Charlie’s son? He’s a state trooper now, you can call him.”
Lucy heaved a heavy sigh. Mark could just see her rubbing the bridge of her nose with her eyes squeezed shut like she always did when she disapproved of his antics.
“I’ll see you in a bit.” Mark said.
“Fine. Just be safe.”
“I will. Oh, and Lucy-Lu? You’d better have a peanut and honey sandwich waitin’ for me!”
Lucy’s laugh rag through the receiver and he hung up with a bright smile across his haggard face.
Mark shuffled into his bedroom; he took one last look around. The peony curtains Susan put up her first day there still hung over the windows; the flowers now yellowed and the color leached from years of sun and cover in dust from years of neglect. His suitcase lay waiting for him, atop the matching peony bedspread.
Taking his suitcase, Mark walked down to the front door. Downing his hat and coat he left, not bothering to lock the door behind him. What little he left behind could be stolen, or the bank could take it all; hell it could all rot to the ground, he was too tired to care anymore. Mark put his suitcase in the back seat of his car and drove off to the gas station.
The numbers ticked by lazily while the gas slugged in to fill his tank. Leaning against the cold steal frame, Mark regarded the car wash. It received many updates over the years, but it was still familiar.
His Susan loved all things mechanical, and this contraption was a fascination of hers. When the others would scoff and scold that such things were not lady like, Susan simply turned up her nose and tightened her over-all strap, she only ever had one fastened at a time. Thinking of his Susan, a smile spread across Mark’s wrinkled face; her curly hair pulled back with a red bandanna tied around her head, and grease smeared across her face.
Mark never did find out who turned the machine on while she was working on it. He wanted to tell them it was alright; he knew it was just an accident. Now it seemed he would never get the chance.
Placing the nozzle back in its’ holder, Mark got in his car and pulled up to the car wash. He hadn’t used it since the accident, and now it seemed a shame to him that he’d avoided the machine his wife so adored.
Putting the car in neutral, Mark settled back in his seat. The sprayers started beating against the steal of his car, painting the windshield with colorful soaps. The brushes started to spin. Mark jumped, he thought he saw a face, alas, it was gone before he could make it out.
Dismissing it as a trick of the eye, he went back to enjoying the spectacle. Spinning brushes and water beat against his car, through all the racket he heard something curious. What was it?
“Impossible…” Mark muttered, sitting upright in his seat.
It was circus music. Not just any circus, the circus that used to visit the town. The further into the wash he went, the louder the music became.
Something metallic scraped along the side of his car.
The noise traveled from the trunk, across the rear door, and up to the drivers side. Mark leaned in close.
A splash of water cleared away the soap from the side window. Mark’s heart caught in his throat when he saw her. Susan. His Susan.
Her beautiful face was ragged and twisted, her checks hollowed, and blood smeared across her mangled body. Mark wanted to scream, to cry out in horror, but he couldn’t breathe, his chest tightened.
The sounds of car wash faded into abyss, the circus music grew louder, and there was now laughter. It was maniacal and uncontrolled, echoing through Marks ears. He didn’t know where it came from, nor did he care to search for another person, his eyes were fixed on Susan. Her once bright and loving eyes were dulled and menacing. What happened to his beloved?
In an instant Susan rushed the car. Beating against the window she shrieked wildly. Marks chest tightened, his arm cramped, his breath came in shallow gasps.
The laughter shifted; it was no longer echoing around Mark. Turning his head to the right, Mark saw it. The source of the maniacal laughter sat in his passenger seat, watching him.
The horrible paint streaked face was the last thing Mark saw as his heart stopped.
“We are not lost.” Mercia said for the tenth time.
“How would you know since you won’t let me check the map?” Tracy said, anxiety thick in her voice.
“Why do you need a map when we have a perfectly good GPS?”
“It’s clearly not perfect since we are in the middle of no-where stranded in a ghost town.”
“It’s a short cut.”
Rolling her eyes, Mercia pulled the car into an old gas station. She watched in annoyance while Tracy unfolded her map, burying her face inside the massive folds of paper. Mercia would never understand her girlfriend’s aversion to technology.
“Now if I can just figure out where we are…” Tracy muttered to herself.
“I meant where specifically on earth.”
“The North American continent, Oklahoma.” Mercia leaned across the steering wheel, looking across the vacant parking lot.
“That’s surprisingly not helpful. Here, route 55. Wait no, that’s not right…”
“Hey look, over there.” Mercia pointed to the car wash, it was neglected and dusty just like the rest of the town.
“What?” Tracy looked up from the map.
“I thought I saw someone.”
“But, this whole town is deserted. We haven’t seen anyone, not even a car.”
The lights in the car wash flickered, illuminating the shadow of a man moving around inside.
“I’ll go ask him for directions.” Mercia undid her seat belt and opened the car door.
“No!” Tracy grabbed her arm. “Don’t you know anything? You don’t go investigating strange noises, and you do not go looking for shadows in creepy ghost towns!”
“Wow. You’ve got to stop watching horror movies.”
“Mer, I’m serious. Don’t get out of the car.”
Tracy knitted her brow together, the way she always did when overthinking something. Mercia smiled to herself, she loved her little worry-wort. But this was ridiculous.
“Stay here.” Mercia pulled her arm free and sprung from the car. “Be right back!”
Mercia strolled to the entrance of the car wash while Tracy yelled for her to come back.
“Hello?” Mercia came to the entrance of the car wash.
She heard carnival music coming from inside, it was so loud she wondered how she didn’t hear it from the car. Mercia thought carnival music was an odd choice for a car wash, but it wasn’t her establishment, so she didn’t let it bother her.
A man stood alone in the middle of the car wash, looking at the ground. His left shirt sleeve was rolled up to reveal a missing forearm.
“Could you help me; do you by chance know the best way to get back to the highway? I’m trying to get to-“
The man raised his head, Mercia gasped.
White and blue paint ran down the mans face, mixing with blood that oozed from a cut above his brow and left nostril. If he was in pain, he didn’t seem to notice; his eyes were wide and full of excitement.
“Sir?” Marcia held up a tentative hand. “I’m a nurse, I have a first-aid kit in my car. I can help you.”
A grin stretched across his dirty face. The music played louder. The man began to laugh wildly, revealing a bloodied mouth missing teeth. His laughter sprayed bloodied saliva across the concrete. The man began to limp forward, his laughter echoing through Mercia’s head, drowning out the carnival music.
More figures appeared in the car wash, their broken and bloody bodies emerging from the shadows. An old man, his face contorted in terror. A young woman, half her body mangled and shredded. A man with his eyes gouged out, and countless others swarmed behind the laughing man.
Mercia stood rooted to the ground, her blood ice and her limbs heavy. She couldn’t force herself to move as she watched the herd come for her. Mercia thought she was going to die there, too afraid to run from the horror.
“Mer?” Tracy’s voice wafted through Mercia’s head. Then her screams pierced through the deafening music, breaking Mercia from her trance.
Tracy stood three meters behind Mercia, gripping her canister of mace in a trembling hand.
“Run!” Mercia yelled.
Sprinting forward she gripped Tracy’s free hand. Together they ran back to the car. Slamming the door shut, Mercia twisted the key in the ignition. The engine roared to life and she slammed her foot into the gas pedal.
Spraying stones and dirt behind them, they fled the car wash in a cloud of dust.
Oscar limped across the barren field. The noise of hammers pounding steal and men shouting filled the hot air. The factory accident that ruined his leg, also took his left arm clean up to the elbow. He wasn’t much use in setting up the tents and minnie-rides for his circus but, he made himself useful in other ways.
Oscar limped up to the ring leaders tailor. Travis was an oily man that was used to having to scam people to survive, but Oscar didn’t mind, he learned long ago how to handle Travis.
“Oscar! Where’ve you been ma’boy?” Travis’s voice projected easily from years of running the shows. “Gimping around the town again?”
“I put up all our posters, one in each market and the banks, the other scattered around real nice like. Then I paid my respects to them business owners that sponsored us.”
“And how are those bastard fat cats?”
“Delighted. We should have a full house tomorrow.”
“Fantastic! You know just the words I like to hear Oscar.”
Travis’s sharp eyes snapped up, his feigned warmth vanishing from his face.
“And we’ve been offered more money.”
“Go on.” Travis quirked one of his thin eyebrows.
“A ribbon cutting, two days from now. Nothing fancy, just three of us dressed up smiling and greeting the towns folks.”
“What are they ‘grand opening’?”
“A car wash,” Oscar laughed at the look on Travis’s face; he loved pulling a fast one on the arrogant prick. “The fattest fat cat in town bought his wife one of them fancy automatic car washes; she’s a bit of a grease wrench and there little three-year-old loves the circus. He offered a decent wad a cash, so I didn’t ask any more questions.”
“An automatic car wash?”
“Yeah, you remember, we saw one of them back at the Detroit auto show in ’46.”
“Hmmm.” Travis nodded his head in recognition. “This is a very odd town.”
“Could be worse.” Oscar shrugged. “We could be back in Kansas where they tried to tar n’ feather Roy and Sam.”
“Always looking on the bright side.”
“It keeps me pretty.”
“If this is your pretty face, then I’d hate to see what your ugly mug used to look like.”
“A right sort better than yours does.”
With a bellowing laugh, Travis waved him off. Oscar left the shade of the trailer and stepped into the heat.
The sun was setting over the barren Oklahoma plains. The carnies had the tents all set up and were working on assembling the rides. The freaks and performers were set to decorating their tents and setting up the seating.
Roy and Sam snuck kisses between work and the performers danced and sang while they worked. The contortionists walked on all fours, the strong men set up the stage for the dwarves, and one of the newbies carried an umbrella to shade the reptile man from the sun. This was one of the many things about the circus Oscar loved. After living with the degenerates and outcasts of society, they became your family, accepting you no matter what. Although, he had to admit some of the new carnies and pass-throughs were pricks.
Oscar spent the rest of the evening helping the newbies perfect their make-up and overcome their stage fright. After twenty-six years in the circus he knew how to help them calm their nerves and boost their confidence; he could also tell which ones would make it and which wouldn’t. This season they had one new burlesque girl, two new singers, and three guys who had no idea how to do anything, Oscar took them under his wing to teach them how to clown. Two of his prodigies, Andy and Kevin, showed real promise in the art of making people laugh, while the third, Wes, seemed more interested in chasing tail.
Before opening night, Oscar helped Andy and Kevin get their make-up just right; Oscar preferred a simple approach with colors that complimented the clown’s appearance as opposed to the new style of using many colors on ones face until they looked positively deranged.
Andy had green eyes and pale skin. Oscar painted little pink circles on his cheeks and the tip of his nose with green triangles above his eyebrows. Kevin had tan skin and dark eyes, Oscar put him in a light layer of white face paint with red diamonds around his eyes and red lipstick. Oscar himself had bright blue eyes, so he wore a layer of white face paint with blue triangles above and below his eyes with a blue dot on the tip of his nose.
“Now remember, we’re here to entertain the kids and give the parents a much-needed break.” Oscar gave a small pep-talk before the gates opened. “So absolutely no cursing, no touching, and no inappropriate jokes of any kind. Stay close to me and follow my lead; if you think ya need help just say ‘Oh bananas!’ and I’ll come on over. Got it?”
Andy and Kevin nodded.
“Now where in tarnation is Wes?” Oscar grumbled.
Wes showed up an hour and a half after the gates were opened. Oscar was in the middle of a missing arm stunt while Andy, and Kevin handed out balloons, when Wes sauntered over. He had gaudy make-up plastered across his face and smelled of liquor. Oscar watched him like a hawk; he was damned if he was going to let one bad apple give his circus and his clowns a bad reputation with the parents.
Oscar turned his back for a second to interact will a little girl who also had a bum-leg; a second was all it took.
“Oh bananas!” Andy called out.
“Oh my, so many bananas!” Kevin echoed the call for help.
Oscar whipped around to see Wes trying to cop-a-feel on one of the young mothers, knocking her twin boys into the dirt in the process. Oscar rushed forward, grabbing the drunken clown under the arms and hauling him off the woman.
“Oh no, no, no! Bad clown!” Oscar sang, trying to keep the situation from escalating.
Looking over his shoulder, Oscar was relieved to see Andy and Kevin helping the little boys up and wiping the dirt and tears from them while telling jokes. Once the boys were standing straight, they started a tumbling routine where they pretended to be in a fight; with the children laughing and smiling again, Oscar drug Wes to the clown dressing trailer.
Wes was drunk enough to be ornery about being man-handled, but too drunk to have any real balance to put up a fight. For which Oscar was grateful, he was a petite man and with one arm less than Wes he didn’t think he would win a fight with him.
“Get your filthy fucking hands off me!” Wes slurred.
Oscar dropped Wes to the floor and slammed the trailer door shut behind them.
“What is wrong with you?” Oscar demanded. “This job is family oriented; it's directed at the damned kids. You can’t go feeling up the moms!”
“Damn Osc, you need to lighten up.”
“I will not put up with this behavior from my clowns, do you understand me?”
“You’re not my damned boss,” Wes spit on Oscars shoe. “Travis is.”
Oscar grabbed Wes by the collar, slamming him into the wall of the trailer. His drunk eyes sobered up enough to reveal fear.
“I’ve been here longer than anyone else on this damned train, even Travis. Travis is the ring master because I allow him to be. This is my circus! Do you understand me? I. Run. This. Show.” Oscar leaned in close to Wes, spitting each word through his teeth. “You’re demoted to being a carny; get that shit make-up off your damned face!”
Oscar released him, allowing the drunken man to fall to the floor.
Back on the circus grounds Oscar apologized to the woman Wes assaulted and gave her money back. Oscar was thankful the rest of the night went smoothly.
In the wee hours of the morning, Oscar found Travis and the other show leads counting the ticket sales from the evening. They made more money that night than they had at the last three towns combined.
In addition to the ticket sales, the business owners paid a large sum to ensure his circus came back every year; no other town did that. And the people who lived here were unusually kind to the freaks and carnies, they even provided tips for shows they enjoyed. Oscar never understood how a little town in the middle of nowhere Oklahoma could be so prosperous.
With everything tallied and locked safely away, Oscar told them all what happened with Wes. They all agreed the newbie couldn’t be allowed to run around like a damned fool, they needed to be ruled with an iron fist or the entire circus would be in jeopardy. Everyone agreed to help Oscar keep an eye on Wes; Oscar got lucky that night, if Wes had been less drunk or more stable on his feet, Oscar would not have been able to handle him alone.
The next afternoon Oscar took Andy and Kevin into town for the ribbon cutting ceremony. Because it was daylight, they wore thinner layers of make-up so it wouldn’t sweat off in the heat. The business owner who hired them was Mark, was a kind fellow who was always quick with a smile and helping hand regardless of who was in need. Oscar was excited to see the man and his family so happy.
The three clowns entertained the crowd by preforming small skits and handing out balloons while they waited for Mark’s speech. Oscar made sure to give a personal ‘Hello’ to Mark’s little girl and give her a bundle of balloons. The town’s people clapped and laughed whole heartedly. They seemed to have moved on from the incident with Wes, for which Oscar was grateful.
Mark stood up in front of the town and gave a small speech about the wonders of mechanics, how much his wife Susan loved machines, and how much he loved Susan. It was short and sweet. Oscar and the other clowns cheered too loud and honked horns in appreciation, then sounded of course of ‘Eww’ and feigned embarrassment when Mark kissed his wife. Finally, they ‘Ooed’ and ‘Ahhed’ loudly at the demonstration.
Overall the ceremony was over, and the clown’s appearance finished in under an hour. Mark then took the three of them on a personal tour inside the contraption. Water dripped down onto them making their face paint run. After handing Oscar a handsome compensation for their time, Mark and his family totted off to the candy store for a Saturday treat.
“What a swell guy.” Kevin said, wiping the make-up off his face with a handkerchief.
“Yeah, this whole town’s super happy.” Andy said, following Kevin’s suit. “What’s wrong with ‘em?”
“Nothin’s wrong with them if you ask me.” Oscar laughed and handed over the bulk of the money to his trainees. “You’ve got a couple hours before you need to be back at the circus, why don’t you two enjoy yourselves for a bit.”
“You sure boss?” Kevin’s eyes grew wide at the sum of money in his hand.
“Yeah, go down to the soda parlor and get yourselves a treat; you earned it. But remember, no funny business and you gotta be back on time.”
“Sure thing!” Kevin beamed.
“What about you?” Andy asked.
“Don’t worry about me, I think I’ll just take a nice walk.” Oscar said. “Go on, have some fun.”
“Thanks!” the two hollered at him, running off to find ice cream.
Oscar smiled to himself. It wasn’t uncommon for people to lie about their ages when they joined the circus, saying they were of legal adulthood when they were anything but. Oscar suspected that was the case for both Andy and Kevin since he first met them, and this proved they were still only children. In Oscar’s opinion, children occasionally needed to be spoiled.
Looking up at the bright sky, Oscar walked around the back of the car wash. His life hadn’t turned out the way he wanted it; when he got hurt in the factory, he lost his job and his fiancé, Oscar never thought he would find happiness again. Spending his days wandering the hospital learning to walk again he came upon the children’s ward. They were so small, and yet so strong. Oscar found purpose again in the unlikeliest of places, hidden within their laughter.
Limping across the pavement, Oscar smiled to himself. Something hard and blunt collided with his temple. Oscars vision turned dark with blurry, he fell hard to the ground.
“Where’s my money? Boss.” Wes spat in Oscars face, and his boot cracked Oscar’s ribs. Wes gripped the wrench in his hand, bringing it down onto Oscar, again and again. Wes let his anger rule him, his hands trembling with rage. Oscar’s blood splattered across Wes with every swing of the wrench; crimson decorated the pavement.
Wes towered over Oscar; his body lay crumpled on the ground, his limbs twitching. Panting, Wes drove the heel of his boot into Oscar’s eye socket. With one final spasm, Oscar’s body went still.
Wes seized Oscar’s ankles and drug him into the car wash. In the center of the car wash was a large grate, covering a drain leading into the sewers where the soapy waters flowed away. Using the bloodied wrench, Wes pried up the grate. Huffing and puffing, Wes crammed Oscar’s body through the grate, falling with a heavy splash into the dirty waters below. Wes dropped the wrench in the waters before putting the grate back.
Oscar lingered in confusion; he was unable to leave the car wash, and unable to remember how he got there. He tried speaking to the people who came through, but they simply ignored him. Slowly, his confusion gave way to realization; he was dead and his bloated and rotting body lay in the sewer waters below. Beneath his realization, wrath boiled.
His anger festered for years, poising his once pure soul; Oscar became thirsty for blood. He started luring unsuspecting towns people into the car wash, his prison. No matter how many he killed, he wasn’t satisfied because it wasn’t him, the one who trapped Oscar in this hell. The more people Oscar killed, the further his poison spread across the town, until he was left alone with his bitter revenge.