based on actual events
I didn’t come home from war to deal with this. Tawny and I had an argument. She wanted us to take Ryan to the circus and I forbid it. She got tickets while I was overseas and assumed I wouldn’t think anything of it. I told her that Ryan was too grown up for the circus, but of course, she had a reply. Tawny said that not only was Ryan just the right age, but she loved the circus. She saw a special on TV a while back and loved the trapeze artists. Ryan was an avid gymnast and admired the trapeze artists’ dedication in swinging around and doing all kinds of flips high in the air. She also loved the animals. While she was watching this special, she asked Tawny if she could see the circus if it ever came to town. Tawny gave the OK.
With all the entertainment out there, the ipods, blackberries, Internet, movies, video games, what kid wants to go to the circus anymore? My kid had to be different. If I had been home, I could’ve straightened this out long before it came to fruition.
“We’re not going,” I said. “She’s not a kid anymore.”
“She’s seven,” Tawny said.
“She needs to grow up.”
“Can we give her another year before we tell her to move out?”
I rolled my eyes and took a beer out of the refrigerator. Tawny folded her arms and lowered her eyebrows. She was trying to stare me down, but I wouldn’t look at her. The wet snap of my beer opening broke the kitchen silence.
“I can’t take the tickets back even if I wanted to,” she said.
“I’ll pay you for the tickets.”
“That’s not the point. There is no reason why we can’t take our daughter to the circus, which by the way, doesn’t come around that much anymore.”
“What does that mean?”
“Nothing,” I sipped the beer.
“She wants to go. I want this experience and you should too.”
Ryan was in her bedroom. She was at her desk when I first glanced at her from the hallway. When she sensed my presence, she got up from her chair and faced me standing straight, chin up, arms by her side. I entered the bedroom and looked around. Her books were shelved from biggest to smallest. The picture frame of my General father and WAC mother hung straight as were her certificates in Jiu Jitsu for Children training. The rug still had vacuum tracks.
“Hello, Ryan,” I said.
“Hello, Dad,” she said.
I approached her bed. The stuffed Eeyore that was on the comforter during my last visit home was gone. “How is your homework coming along?”
“Has your mother given you assistance when requested?”
“Do you require any assistance tonight?”
I dug into my pocket and pulled out a quarter. I whipped it down on the comforter. It bounced high enough to my satisfaction. “It’s come to my attention that your mother has procured tickets to the circus scheduled for this Saturday in which you are interested in attending. Is that correct?”
“I believe that you are past the suitable age where a circus would provide fascination. Life is not a fantasy world and the sooner you realize this, the better off you will be. Do I make myself clear?”
She lowered her eyes, but her voice tone was still the same.
I approached her desk and ran my fingertip along its edge. When my finger ran out of wood to slide on, I lifted it up and stared at the tip. “Your mother, however, has a difference of opinion on the matter and in all fairness to her, she did go through considerable trouble to procure tickets to the said event.” I turned my attention back to her. “Do you still wish to attend?”
“Very well then. Saturday, you may attend the circus along with your mother. I, however, will not be accompanying either of you as I feel it is a step back in the progression you should be making as a young woman. Do I make myself clear?”
Ryan paused before she answered. “I would enjoy it more if you came with us.”
Her voice tone changed that time. My pause in answering was even longer. She still had that excellent poise that she was taught, but her eyes had a slouching to them. I wanted to think that it was the lights playing tricks on me, but I knew otherwise. I stepped over to her, got on one knee, and put my hands on her shoulders.
“I’m sorry. I have my reasons and someday, you’ll understand why. Do you believe me?”
“Good. Go finish your homework. If you wish, I can read you a story before you go to bed.”
“No thank you. That won’t be necessary. I can read it myself.”
I lay awake that night, staring at the ceiling and listening to Tawny’s soft snoring. I didn’t want to look at the clock, but I knew it was about three-hundred hours. There was guilt from my talk with Ryan, but, I may as well admit it, there was fear too. From the time Tawny mentioned the circus, all I thought about was the spring of 1981 when I lived in Canton, Massachusetts.
I lived on a rural street. It was the kind of place where you knew all your neighbors and everyone had a forest in their backyard. There were adolescents my age in every other household and we were all friends. We spent countless hours playing street hockey, building forts, pretending we were superheroes, sleeping outside in tents during the summer, and riding our bikes to the general store for candy. It was a fulfilling childhood before the spring of 1981.
It happened when I was eight. I was alone that day. My friends went to public school so it was just another day for them. I went to private school and there was no class that day due to a teachers’ workshop so I had the neighborhood to myself. Most adults were at work and my mother was in the backyard gardening. I was up the street, visiting a pond behind a friend’s house. May was always the best time for frog hunting because the mosquitoes didn’t arrive until a month later. I spent all morning there, spotting frogs, sneaking up on them, trying to grab them. Any suburban boy will tell you that when it comes to frog catching, some days are better than others. I walked away with an empty bucket, but by the time I got home, I carried something bigger.
I was walking on the left side of the road on the way back. It’s funny how that one decision caused such a fierce ripple. If I had been on the right side, things might have been different. I was going to go home for lunch and then to the woods in my backyard to work on a tree house, where my friends were supposed to meet me after the bus dropped them off. It was a clear day.
I should have seen the van coming sooner.
It appeared brown at first, but as it got closer I saw that it was black. The brown I thought I saw was rust, which camouflaged half the vehicle. It was an old model from what I remembered. It had ladders on the sides of it and no hubcaps. I noticed that it had a broken headlight as it got closer. If I had looked above the grill and seen the driver, I would have run for the woods or to a neighbor’s house.
As the van approached, it swerved more to the right, my left. Its side door opened as it slowed down to approximately fifteen miles per hour. Then an arm came out of the van. All I thought about was how odd the arm looked in that second. Its sleeve was bright and striped with a ruffle at the wrist. My brief curiosity, my hesitation, was all the time that was needed.
The hand in the middle of the ruffle snatched my shirt.
Another hand grabbed my arm and together, they pulled. By the time I let out a scream, my feet were off the ground, the bucket was dropped, and I was inside the van. I froze when I saw my kidnapper. It was a clown. He wore white grease paint with thin black triangles around his eyes. A red nose ballooned from his face and his smile was a pair of black narrow sharp points ending at the cheeks. The hair was red and curly. He tossed me to the other side of the empty van long enough to shut the side door. I tried to get up, but he was on top of me, pinning my wrists down with his hands. As he adjusted his lower half to try to sit on my legs, I saw that he was naked from the waist down.
It was the laughter that I remembered the best through all the terror I absorbed that moment. He leaned down and guffawed so hard that the rest of him was shaking, but the laughter wasn’t alone. I was able to look over the clown’s shoulder and saw another clown driving the van. His make-up patterns and outfit were the same as the clown who seized me. The driver clown appeared to be naked from the waist down as well, his hairy foot pushing on the gas pedal. The only difference between the two clowns was that the driver was wearing a blue curly wig. The louder I cried, the louder they laughed and I saw in the passenger clown’s eyes that he enjoyed it. The laughter was humiliating, but as I played the scene over in my mind to the police and late at night in my bed, there was something more to it. The clown was only a few inches away from my face as he laughed, but I don’t remember feeling hot breath. I don’t recall feeling any breath. I also don’t recall the driver paying attention to the road. I used to watch my father talk to my mother while driving, but he had to acknowledge the traffic ahead of him every few seconds. The driver clown never faced the windshield the entire time I was in the van. The van was moving as I felt it vibrate under my back, but the driver just watched me and his friend while steering as if he had eyes in the back of his head.
The passenger clown’s hand went from my wrist to my throat while his other hand went from my other wrist to the button on my jeans. The clown’s laughter waned as he struggled to unbutton my pants with one hand. The van suddenly jerked upward and so did we. I didn’t know what it was at the time, but as I thought about it later, it must have been a speed bump. When the van hopped, the clown was still concentrating on fumbling with my pants, but his hand loosened around my neck. I grabbed his wrist and bit into his first knuckle. The clown’s giggling morphed into a scream. I shut my eyes and forced my teeth to go as deep as they could. I didn’t stop until I tasted blood. My legs kicked around and during the frenzy, my knee connected with his groin. The clown tumbled off me. His wailing mixed with a metallic thud as he landed on his side next to me. There were candy bars sliding from one side of the van to the other. The last vision I have of him is that still-intact, sharp-pointed smile. I crawled towards the van’s side door, opened it, and jumped.
I broke my arm the instant I hit the pavement. I skidded and corkscrewed a few more times before I settled on my side. The van shrunk as it sped away. Its exhaust fumes were still in the air as I blacked out.
I woke up in a hospital bed unsure of how much time had passed. My arm was mummified and my head throbbed. At the foot of my bed was a nurse who welcomed me back to the real world. She fetched my parents and told me about my wounds. I had a broken arm, a fracture on my hip, several bumps and bruises, which included a large one on my temple.
“You’re lucky you didn’t get a serious concussion, Craig,” the nurse said.
I didn’t feel lucky. A police officer came to visit me after lunch. He introduced himself as Officer O’Connor. He was the one who found me lying unconscious on the road and was thrilled that I pulled through without any life-threatening injuries. I told the officer everything I remembered: everything except the clown who didn’t have breath or the driver who never watched the road.
“I don’t want you to worry. We got a sample of the guy’s blood on your shirt and you gave us a great description of the van. You just rest easy, Craig. We’re gonna get these guys in no time.” He smiled and tried to lighten the mood. “You’re a very brave young man. To stand up to those guys and jump out of a van going that fast. I’ll bet you’ll get some kind of award for courage for all this.”
Officer O’Connor was right on the latter. The governor came to visit and presented me a plaque. My parents promised to take me wherever I wanted and buy me whatever I wanted once my cast came off. Officer O’Connor, however, never fulfilled his promise and I never took his advice. I overheard their conversation on the night before I was released. There was a curtain surrounding my hospital bed and they thought I was sleeping. Officer O’Connor and my parents were talking sotto voce.
“I always see cops on that road.”
“I’m just as frustrated as you. But no one saw a van.”
“How can you possibly miss a rusty van with no headlights or hubcaps or whatever the hell it looked like?”
“I don’t know, I’m sorry.”
“How many kids have they tried to kidnap?”
“All we have to go on are the descriptions of five to eight-year-olds.”
“What do you mean?”
“No adults have seen them. Some think it’s all hysteria.”
“Tell that to my son.” That was my mother. She was trying not to yell.
“How could there be no adult witnesses?”
“I don’t know. We put out bulletins all over the Boston area. The superintendent told all the elementary principals to warn students. Someone will come forward. I’m sure of it.”
My friends greeted me when I got home that weekend. Mom and Dad ordered pizzas and we spent much of the night celebrating. I don’t know what the occasion was—my survival maybe. It made me feel better. It was good to be among friends and family. The adults told me how brave they thought I was. Everyone signed my cast and expressed how glad they were that I was okay. My best friend, J.T., even slept over that night. He was the first one to mention the clowns. He told me that there was a special rally in the gym where police officers reminded them about what to do concerning strangers. Before we crawled into our sleeping bags (we were in my playroom, not outside in a tent), he pulled out some newspaper articles from his zipper bag.
“Check it out,” he said.
BEWARE ‘CLOWN,’ PUPILS TOLD. That was the title the Boston Globe used on May 7, 1981. They had struck all over the area: Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Jamaica Plain, Randolph, and Roxbury. J.T. showed me other articles, which cited about the probable hysteria and that no adults had seen either clowns in the area or the van I saw. There were over twenty 911 calls. They led nowhere.
I didn’t sleep that night.
I didn’t sleep well for a long time. There always seemed to be a clown under my bed, hiding behind the furniture, peeking from my closet, waiting in the hallway. The daylight didn’t make things easier. There always seemed to be a clown around every corner, behind every car in the teachers’ parking lot, scrunched behind every large rock, and every vehicle in the distance was a black rusty van with no hubcaps. Whenever I saw Bozo on TV, I changed the channel with my eyes closed. I also avoided McDonald’s.
My father noticed the stress I endured and suggested I enroll in martial arts to gain confidence and mental discipline. He got me involved in jiu jitsu. I caught on quick because it kept my mind busy. I also caught on quick because it gave me a sense of power. I continued to go long after the clown scare faded from the public. Still, there were nightmares. It was particularly rough in the summer of 1989 when Jack Nicholson’s Joker was plastered everywhere and a few years later, when the Insane Clown Posse were at their zenith. Heath Ledger didn’t help either.
I was a second-degree black belt when I graduated high school and decided to continue the male family tradition by enrolling in the Marines. I made my combat debut in Bosnia, then Afghanistan and Iraq. I saw clowns whenever I shot at a target or person. I looked for them whenever I was home. J.T. grew up to become a local police officer and gave me copies of the clown files. The last lead they had was in June, 1981. There was speculation that the van could have come from a junkyard. This motivated me to break into every junkyard in the area and scour, flashlight in one hand, a firearm in the other. There was nothing to do after that except go over the case files and my photographic memory over and over again.
During the Christmas season of 1996, I went to the Canton Public Library to take advantage of their new Internet lab. I wanted to see if the clowns had struck anywhere else over the years and if they left any kind of clues. It turned out that similar incidents occurred in Providence, Rhode Island and Kansas City, Missouri. No arrests there either or suspects for that matter. The librarian who helped me that day was Tawny. Although our relationship developed after that, I never told her about what happened to me when I was eight. My excuse on the subject was that I had an interest for unsolved mysteries like Jack the Ripper and the Black Dahlia case. I found a few websites about the clowns when I was able to use the Internet alone. One particular website caught my attention. It wasn’t a criminology website. It was a paranormal website. Their theories were that the clowns who struck New England in 1981 and beyond were never caught because they weren’t human. They had been diagnosed as demons and boogeymen. I got drunk that night. I stamped the case “Unsolved,” like many police departments did and decided to play defense from that day forward.
Tawny and Ryan were already gone when I came home from the gym. I planned to shower and watch a program on the History Channel. A single ticket was on the counter below the alarm. There was a note next to the ticket: “Just in case you change your mind. We love you, Ryan and Tawny.” I went into the linen closet and plucked a folded, fabric-softened bath towel from the shelf and headed for the bathroom. Ryan’s room was on the way. I peeked in. Her homework and school materials were cleared off and placed in her school bag, which was in her closet. I left behind footprints in the just-vacuumed rug as I approached her bed. I did another bouncing quarter inspection. She passed. There was no dust on the furniture.
I looked out the window to catch a glimpse of the sunset. The fence around the backyard was still secure, but it was getting weather-beaten. I’ve been considering replacing it for some time now with a higher one made of metal. And stronger locks. Tawny scoffed at this idea. She says the neighbors get a good chuckle out of my precautions, comparing the house to Fort Knox. Let them joke, I say. It’s a different world out there today. When I was younger, I used to be able to go out for hours all over the place without any worries.
It’s the clowns. I know they were probably just men in make-up, but they’re still out there. I’ve trained and waited, ready to put an end to it for good. Somehow along the way, I had a family. Ryan was not going to experience what I did. I wanted to make sure of it.
I just wanted her to be ready.
The ticket was still valid even though I was almost an hour late to the TD Garden. I bought some cotton candy and a stuffed lion before I entered the rigmarole-filled auditorium. The Garden always had a ventilation problem. It was hot, which enhanced the combination smell of popcorn and body odor. Organ music echoed off the walls. An usher helped me find my seat. Tawny looked shocked, her eyebrows raised and chin lowered. I had no idea Ryan could smile that wide. I turned sideways and inch-wormed towards them, the back of my legs rubbing against other spectators’ knees, hearing the crackle of sticky concrete beneath my boots.
“What are you doing here?” Tawny said.
“I changed my mind.”
Tawny smiled and squeezed my forearm as I brushed past her. Ryan gazed at the stuffed lion, then me.
I handed her the cotton candy. “I decided that we can make an exception on your standard diet for tonight.”
Ryan took the cotton candy. “Thank you, Dad.”
I handed her the stuffed lion. “I also felt that you would want a souvenir for tonight’s occasion. Will this suffice?”
She took the stuffed lion in the other hand. “Yes. Thank you, Dad.”
I nodded and took the seat to her right. There was a parade of animals being led by their trainers on the floor. They were marching in a large circle. The clowns were within the circle. A bunch of them were stumbling out of a miniature fire truck. My temperature rose and my heart tempo quickened as I sat there, hands folded tight enough to make the middle joints in my fingers pale.
“I can’t see very well. Could I sit on your lap?”
“I suppose that would be all right.”
Ryan sat her stuffed lion on her assigned seat and climbed into my lap. I put my arms around her and hugged stomach-to-back. Her head blocked my view.
“Thank you, Daddy. This is much better.”
I hugged her tighter. “Yes, it is.”