The summer after we promoted from middle school, Jessi’s family took me and Missy along with them on a vacation to San Loco. The Warren’s always treated me as if I was their own, and I sometimes wondered if trips like this one were planned more for my benefit than Jessi’s as a way of making sure I had a life. For whatever reason, I got to go along with them in celebration of our promotion to high school.
San Loco has an amazing beachfront strip mall built high on creosote-soaked piles to protect the stores
from surges. The walkways are all wooden decks like a giant pier, but canopied everywhere under a thatch roof, with long gangplanks that lead down to the white, sandy beaches. Cabin-like buildings make you feel like you are somewhere in another time while you shop. Our hotel wasn’t far from the island end of the mall, so the three of us walked down together to window shop.
We were in and out of stores, planning out the things we wanted to spend our souvenir allowance on, when I noticed a tall man off in the distance who seemed to be watching us. He turned away when I looked at him. I began to pay close attention and after each store we left, I could find him again in some hidden place, always turned a little to the side like he was looking at something else, but I could feel he was still watching us.
“Come on,” I said, grabbing Jessi and Missy by their hands.
“Why? What’s the matter?” Jessi asked.
“Just follow me and don’t look back.” I urged.
I dragged them up and around through several stores, zig-zagging among them back in the direction of the hotel. I tried to take a path that would be confusing. Jessi finally pulled back and stopped me.
“What’s going on, Annie?” she demanded.
I turned and looked around behind us. There was no sign of the tall man.
“There was some creeper guy following us,” I explained, “but I think we lost him.”
No sooner had I said it, than I saw him again, not behind us, but up ahead and around to the other side. It was as if we had doubled around in a circle, or he somehow knew some magic shortcut. But there he was, half-hidden behind one of the wooden beams that supported the mall roof, still slightly turned away, pretending to be interested in the contents of a store window.
“Oh my God! There he is!” I gasped, grabbing Missy when she started to turn. “Don’t look! Don’t look!”
“Are you sure you’re not imagining things again?” Missy asked, turning slightly and looking anyway.
Jessi’s never afraid of anything and she wasn’t having it anymore. She turned fully to looked for the man. “Which guy?”
Reluctantly, I pointed him out. He really was creepy looking. Drab brown clothing topped by hair that looked more like a cap set him apart distinctly from the colorfully dressed San Loco tourists. Pronounced cheekbones made his hollow, sunken eyes seem like lifeless sockets. His chin twisted to one one side, protruding unnaturally. As soon as I pointed, he turned and looked directly at us. He took a step in our direction and we were off like a shot, back up the mall toward the hotel.
We didn’t get far before, as impossible as it seemed, we saw him up ahead of us and a little to our right. How did he get around so fast? We turned to avoid him, running now as fast as Missy could keep up. It shouldn’t have been possible, but there he was again. We turned this way and that, trying futilely to work our way back toward the top of the mall, but no matter where we ran, he seemed to be there. Finally, turning down one of the gangplanks, we raced across the top of the beach and up into the town of San Loco.
The streets there are narrow alleyways with tall, white walls. The homes are built above them, probably for protection from tsunamis, much like the stores at the mall. Only the doors met the street, so it was like running down a long white hallway. The creepy man was gone now, but the alleyways of San Loco were leading us away from the hotel and not toward it. Each alley we turned up seemed to start in the right direction, but then it would start to curve away again.
Racing around one more turn, I ran straight into a man as he stepped out onto the street. I nearly knocked him over as he fell back into his front door. He was kind of a funny looking old man, short and round in every sense of those words. Not much taller than I was, his face was almost a perfect circle. A bulbous nose glowed red almost perfectly centered between cheeks flowering in the same red. Short tufts of white hair stuck comically out from the sides of his head. Jessi and then Missy piled into my back and he caught the three of us in short, round, stubby arms.
“What’s the hurry, ladies, what’s the hurry?” he asked us in an asthmatic wheeze.
“I’m sorry, Mr.,” I puffed. “Can you help us? There was a man following us back at the mall and we just want to get back to our hotel.”
“People call me Wizard,” he studied us carefully, unexcited by our plight. “You did the right thing to run away. It’s 62 out… not a safe place for young girls to be running around alone. It’s 62 out. We should get you off the street. Sun goes down soon enough.”
It didn’t make sense. It wasn’t anywhere near sundown yet. It had been a hot day in San Loco, in the high 90s, and he couldn’t have meant Celsius. I wondered in the back of my head what he did mean, as we explained which hotel we were in and how none of the streets seemed to lead that way.
“Better have your parents come get you,” Wizard said. “It’s 62 out. We can use my phone.”
Stepping into a stranger’s house in a strange place didn’t seem like the best of ideas. Staying lost out on the streets with the tall man chasing us seemed like a worse one. I shrugged at Jessi and Missy, and we followed Wizard up the stairs. He directed us past a small living room to a guest room and gestured for us to sit there. It had a comfortable bed and seemed to be decorated for a girl.
“You’re probably thirsty from running. I’ll get you some water while I call your hotel.” He vanished.
Jessi looked at me after he left. “This guy’s creeper!” she said. “We should go.”
Missy nodded her agreement. As she did, we heard the door open and close down below us. Heavy footsteps clomped up the stairs. They turned toward the direction of the kitchen. Wizard said something I couldn’t hear and then the footsteps came back across the living room and stood in the doorway.
I only half stifled a scream and we all looked at each other in horror. It was the tall man from the mall! Wizard suddenly materialized in the doorway and stepped past him with three glasses of water, which he handed to us. He looked from our shocked expressions to their cause in the doorway behind him and then back at us.
“I see you’ve met my boy, Donny,” he said in his raspy voice. “Donny, did you frighten these young ladies?”
Donny was silent. His expression didn’t so much as twitch. Wizard handed us the waters. Jessi set hers down and stood up.
“Um, thanks and all, but we really should be going,” she said.
She started toward the door and Missy and I got up to follow. Donny’s massive frame filled the doorway blocking our exit. Wizard bristled. He seemed almost angry.
“You’ll stay,” he said abruptly. “I called your hotel.” He cocked his head up and to his right as if listening to a voice speaking to him from the ceiling. “Not safe out there. It’s 62 out. Don’t want to meet the Clown.”
I had actually heard of the Clown. Chills ran down my spine as I recalled a news report on the hotel TV two nights before about the body of a young girl discovered on the other side of the island. Authorities were reluctant to attribute her death to a suspected serial killer the San Loco natives were beginning to call “El Payaso” describing him as having the face of a clown. In the comfort of our hotel room it was just another boring news story. Lost in the town of San Loco, it was suddenly real. I sat down again.
Wizard disappeared again, leaving his stone statue of a son blocking the door. It was starting to bother me the way he seemed to just be there and then not be there, the same way Donny had been able to appear all over the mall. Wizard seemed to think he was protecting us from a local serial killer, but somehow I just wasn’t feeling the protection.
I told Jessi and Missy about the news story. Then we sat in silent fear for what seemed like forever. We were all afraid. Afraid to go, afraid to stay, and afraid to say anything with Donny glaring down on us like a grotesque gargoyle. At last, the gargoyle turned and left his perch. We listened to him walk down a hall, and we could hear him using the bathroom. Wizard seemed to be making sounds from the kitchen.
“I don’t think he really called the hotel,” Jessi whispered, gesturing frantically with her eyebrows. “Let’s go!”
We jumped from the bed, scrambled from the room and down the stairs. I heard Wizard call to Donny behind us, but Donny was still using the bathroom, so we got a good head start. We poured out onto the street and ran back the direction we had come. It was late now. The last traces of daylight barely illuminated the dark street and we froze in terror at what we saw. It was impossible! Donny was standing right in front of us!
Panicked beyond reason, we ran back the other way, only to find him blocking that way too! Missy screamed. She tried to run past him, but he caught her easily. I ran to her and tried to pull away his arm but he grabbed me with the other. Jessi pushed past easily with his hands occupied, but now she hesitated, torn between her instinct for safety and her loyalty to us.
I shook my head at her in wild-eyed terror. “No, Jess! Run! Run!” I screamed.
Wizard came out the door onto the street. Jessi hesitated a moment longer, crying her eyes out now, and then turned and disappeared down the street as fast as she could run.
Donny’s long fingers wrapped easily around our tiny necks. He led us back to Wizard like that, and then it all finally made sense. Around the corner came Donny’s identical twin. There were two of them! I understood now what had happened at the mall. They had been on both sides of us, herding us like sheep out of the mall and into the town. Wizard stretched up his hand and slapped Donny’s cheek. He barked something I couldn’t hear at the twin, who marched up the street in the direction Jessi had run, and then he turned to glare at me.
“You tried to escape,” he growled. “Stupid! I knew you would try to escape.”
Back in our bedroom dungeon, Missy fell apart. She began crying pitifully, begging Wizard not to hurt us and to please just let us go. Wizard seemed to be even more angered by the crying than by our dash for freedom or Jessi’s escape. He disappeared into the kitchen and reappeared a few moments later, still looking furious. He grabbed Missy’s wrist and she cried out in pain.
“No more crying!” Wizard barked hoarsely.
Missy recoiled back onto the bed holding her wrist where he had gripped it. Her lips trembled and she was shaking badly, but she kept quiet. Wizard seemed satisfied and he left. He said something quietly to Donny on the way out and Donny stepped out of the doorway, but we could hear that he never left. I sat back and put my arms around Missy to cuddle her.
“I’m scared, Annie,” she cried in a whisper.
“I know,” I said. “Shh. It’s going to be okay.” And I hugged her tighter.
Missy and I kissed once before. I had a date with a boy named Kyle and she said I needed to practice before I went out with him in case he tried to kiss me. She insisted I needed quite a bit of practice before I realized it was just an excuse to keep kissing me. She laughed when I finally figured it out and then told me I was a good kisser.
I wasn’t upset or anything. It was really nice, but it kind of changed things between us knowing she felt that way. We never talked about it, and now, holding her all cuddled up together, I couldn’t help wondering what she felt and then how I could think something like that at a time like this.
“I think Daddy’s getting me a puppy when we get back,” I evaded the thoughts in my head.
“What makes you think you’re getting a puppy?” Missy asked. “Your dumb-ass dad never gets you anything that doesn’t have a sports logo on it.”
I was relieved I had taken her mind off things. “No, Daddy promised. I think I’m going to name him Booker.”
Missy squinted. “You should name him something cool that’ll make your Dad want to get him one of those custom dog dishes with his name on it.”
“What’s the matter with Booker?”
“You could name him Flower, that’s a cool name!” she laughed. “And you could have little flowers around his name on the dish!”
I scowled at her. No one uses my first name, but Jessi.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “You know I’m kidding.” She leaned closer and put her cheek against mine.
“Miss! You’re burning up!” I said, feeling her cheek and then her forehead. She was. “Are you okay?”
“I do feel kinda sick all of a sudden,” she admitted.
She reached down and rubbed her wrist where Wizard had grabbed her. There was a mark there that looked like something had punctured her skin. It was red and swollen now and the color was beginning to spread.
“What the hell did he do to you?” I gasped.
“I don’t know. It thought he just pinched my skin,” she kept rubbing at the swelling like it itched.
I jumped up from the bed and started out the door. Donny immediately appeared in the doorway and stopped me. I grabbed his hand and pushed it away from me angrily. He just stared with the same stone face.
“Tell that Mr. Wizard he needs to help us!” I demanded.
Donny’s face remained unchanged. It was as if he was deaf and mute and didn’t understand a word I said.
“Wizard!” I snapped through the doorway.
I pushed past Donny and surprisingly, he let me go. I walked through the living room. The stairway to the street below called to me as I passed. The house seemed to suck up all other sounds but mine as I walked away from the bedroom toward the kitchen area where I last saw Wizard. My feet, my quickened breaths, even my heartbeat seemed to echo through the room.
I reached the door and looked through it but Wizard wasn’t there. There was another bedroom, close to the entry, and the door was ajar. I tiptoed back and peeked in. The room was filled with the strangest furniture I’d ever seen. Barrels and boxes, weird knotted ropes suspended from the ceiling forming squares that might have been hanging chairs. The only bed was a small cot in the corner behind a giant file cabinet that seemed to be made of heavy steel. Next to that completely out of place in this room full of the out-of-place, was a vanity. In front of the vanity, was Wizard.
He stood immersed in his own reflection, mumbling to himself with a disturbing intensity that insisted for him this was normalcy. My ears craned for what he was saying, something about us, about not trusting him. Then he shook all over like a dog shedding water and muttered that we would see.
“It’s 62 out!”
Shocked by his words, I faltered, and he whirled on me at the noise. His face was angrier than ever now. He turned from his mirror and marched toward me with the intensity of a dwarf warrior gone to battle. He stopped in front of me, but I couldn’t let him speak first.
“What have you done to Missy?” I shrieked. “She needs help now! You have to help her!”
“Don’t have to help anyone!” The reptilian hiss in his voice now made me shudder. I hate snakes.
“If you won’t help her, you have to let me go! She needs help!”
There was a simple beauty in my own naivete. I had not accepted what faced me. If Missy needed help, it should have been plain that Wizard was the reason she needed it, but the only thing plain to me was her fever.
“You’re not going anywhere,” Wizard hissed. “It’s 62 out there. Was 19… was 28… now it’s 62.”
“That’s not that cold, Wizard,” I said.
“You’re not from around here,” Wizard’s eyes steeled against mine. For the first time, I felt like there might be some real connection. “It’s 62. Not the cold, the number,” his wheezing was suddenly eerie. “I can’t let you go.”
He was really beginning to frighten me now. I backed away in horror, keeping him in my sight. Back across to the bedroom passed the statue that was Donny. I sat quietly back on the bed. Missy lay curled up now with the blanket pulled over her and she was fast asleep. I felt her forehead again and checked her wrist. It didn’t seem to be any worse then before. I heard Wizard say something to Donny and then for the first time, they both walked away and left us unguarded.
I sat there for hours through the night, long, quiet hours stroking Missy’s hair while she slept and checking her fever from time to time. The eerie silence played with my mind. My path to freedom was clear now, but leaving seemed senseless. Donny would just appear out of nowhere as he had before.
Finally, the sunrise began to light up the sky in the small window above the bed. The San Loco airport was nearby and I could see two small planes circling around in formations. It was difficult to see over the wall. I realized that the wall meant we must be on a hill at the level of the next street and I wondered if that also meant a door. I tried to wake Missy up, but she was out.
Quietly, I tip-toed to the bedroom door and peeked out. We were still alone. I sneaked out to my right and down the hall in the direction of the bedroom window. There was a door at the end of it and I opened it carefully and stepped out into a tiny alley of a back yard.
A small blue washing machine was precariously balanced at the edge of the porch. The door nudged it and it started to tip. Petrified, I darted out to catch it and keep it from falling. I caught it in time, but there were dozens of tall metal cans all stacked on top of each other in towers lined up along the wall in the yard. They crashed to the ground like stacks of giant, hollow, metal dominoes, each tower toppling the next. The racket of each echoing can ripped through me. It was more than I could stand. Tears finally streamed down my terrified face as I frantically tried to stack the cans back up.
It seemed like the door didn’t even open. Wizard was just there, screaming at me in another fit of rage. “You tried to escape again! Stupid!”
“I wasn’t trying to go anywhere,” I choked, my voice shaking and my lips trembling. “I wouldn’t leave Missy. I was just trying to fix the washing machine and the cans fell. I’m so sorry. I wouldn’t try to leave.”
“I’m sick of you lying to me!” He shrieked even louder. His amplified voice and the asthma made him sound like steam escaping a hole in a pipe. “You’re as bad as the Clown!”
My blood went cold. The Clown lied to him? I look at his round face, with his red nose and cheeks, his funny hair… I remembered him talking to his reflection in the mirror. My body sickened and the world spun inside me like a hurricane.
62 out! That was what he said. He meant victims! How could Wizard know how many victims there were when the police didn’t even know? My mind blurred. Wizard was the Clown! We had been kidnapped by El Payaso!
“Missy is really sick,” I cried, continuing to stack the cans as if it was going to save me from my fate.
Wizard was quiet now watching me stack. Noises came from the sky and I turned to look up as I returned the last can to the top of its tower. Two black robotic gargoyles circled the tops of the buildings like dark clouds of evil on giant bat wings. Donny and his twin brother circling to swoop down on the Clown’s next victim, no doubt. As I stared at them, I realized it was the silhouettes of the two airplanes I had seen from the bedroom window. I stopped crying and the friendly sounds of their propellers began to make sense again in my head.
I looked at Wizard. His rage was still apparent in his glowing red face, but he said nothing. He held the door open… I looked around the yard. The narrow alley seemed to lead nowhere in both directions, and I didn’t see any doors through the wall. I stepped back up and toward the back door. Wizard pushed me through it and it slammed shut behind me.
“Stupid,” he muttered.
I went back to the bedroom and sat down again next to Missy’s sleeping body. She was snoring quietly now and I reached out to stroke her hair again while she slept. Her forehead didn’t seem quite as hot. I was exhausted. I wanted to curl up next to her and sleep too, but I couldn’t, so I watched her. I wondered what was going to happen to us, if we would ever see Jessi again.
A loud knock came at the door at the bottom of the stairs as I watched her. I listened to Donny’s stone feet shake the stairwell with each deliberate step. The door opened and a man’s voice asked Donny for his father. I was so tired, everything seemed like a dream. Wizard’s voice joined the man at the street, though I never heard him on the stairs. There were other voices too, and then I heard Jessi’s voice calling my name. She ran into the room, found me awake and threw her arms around me.
“Jess, shh,” I whispered. “You shouldn’t have come back. Wizard is the Clown. He’s killed 62…”
Jessi put her hand over my mouth. She smiled and took my hand pulling me off the bed. “Come on, Flower, it’s time to go.”
She led me out of the room and down the stairs. Police were standing in the street below talking to Wizard, thanking him again for looking after us and apologizing for taking so long to arrive. Jessi sent Mr. Warren upstairs and he came down with Missy, still snoring in his arms.
One officer turned to me and explained. Wizard had called them during the night, but all units were busy. Another girl’s body had been found not far from where Jessi had run off. Jessi was fortunate that she made it back to the hotel, and we were just as fortunate that we had one of San Loco’s finest citizens to look after us.
I blinked in disbelief. One of San Loco’s finest citizens? I remembered Donny’s twin had headed up the street after Jessi. I turned and stared hard at Wizard. His red nose and cheeks, that funny hair… he was the Clown! I knew he was! He had never called the hotel and he had only called the police after Jessi got away.
Wizard looked back at me. “63 out,” he wheezed, and he turned back inside and disappeared up his stairs.
© 2011 Anne Schilde