A Short Story
“Hey, check this out!” Vicki drew our attention to the black trash bag of donations she had emptied on the sorting table. “Clown obsession!”
“I’m not into clowns,” Merryl said. “Let me know if you run across gold jewelry or any music by Ariana Grande. My daughter loves her, but the gold would be for me.”
The contents of the bag, ceramic clowns, China clowns, clown dolls, clown mugs, clown puppets and clown marionettes were a mound of color, outlandish costumes, garish smiles and bulbous noses. Vicki waved a clown mask as if she were waving a red flag in front of bull, and she had stuffed her feet into a pair of ridiculous clown shoes.
“Anybody with that many clowns has to be a creep,” Merryl said.
Vicki, Merryl and I had bonded as soon as we met. We volunteered at a local thrift store, sorting a staggering number of donations that arrived in trash bags, cardboard boxes and sometimes in loose, unwieldy piles. I liked Vicki and Merryl, because unlike the stodgy volunteers who complained incessantly about the mess, the dust, and the number of unsorted donations, those two were fun.
Pawing through trash bags and boxes of stuff allowed us a glimpse into somebody else’s life and provided us with hours of entertainment. We sorted and categorized merchandise to stock in the store, threw a ton of junk away, and sometimes bought things for ourselves, mostly name-brand clothes with the price tags still attached. We never ceased to be amazed at what people donated.
Occasionally we played pranks, which didn’t endear us to the other volunteers. One time Vicki unearthed a cigar box filled with plastic, very realistic cockroaches that we scattered across the break room. Another time we discovered a full set of dentures and positioned them on the bathroom sink beside a dingy toothbrush.
“Hey, get a load of this.” Vicki still held the mask, but in her other hand she clutched a slip of paper. “This note was in the bag. Listen to what it says:
‘Don’t under any circumstances wear the mask.’”
“So now we know for sure the clown donor is a weirdo,” Merryl commented. I scooted over and grabbed the note. It was a big, bold warning, words scrawled across the paper in red magic marker. While I examined it, Vicki’s face disappeared behind the mask.
“Gross! I can’t believe you’d put a mask on your face that somebody donated. Who knows where it’s been,” I screeched.
But Vicki wasn’t listening. She careened across the room like a clown on steroids. Her normally smooth blonde hair spiked wildly around the mask and her petite body had morphed into a whirling dervish. Between the mask and those outlandish shoes, all she needed to complete the outfit was a clown suit.
She must have had the same thought, because she reached for the trash bag and shook it upside down. The only thing that fluttered out was another note. With a theatrical flourish, Vicki scooped the note from the floor and read:
“You’ve Been Warned!”
“Our clown donor has a sense of humor,” Merryl remarked wryly.
“Oooh, I’ve been warned,” Vicki mocked.
I knew Vicki was agile, but when she suddenly executed a string of perfect cartwheels, I was stunned.
“Impressive, Vicki. Maybe you should have joined Barnum and Bailey before they went out of business,” Merryl quipped.
“Wow, this clown is pumped!” Vicki laughed, only it was closer to a shriek. She looked like she was ready to cartwheel out the door when Merryl reached over and snatched the mask off her face. “Calm down clown face. You’re over the top. And I don’t mean the Big Top.”
Vicki’s cheeks were flushed, her eyes bright as diamonds. Her chest heaved in and out like she had run a marathon.
“You had more fun than I would have thought possible with a bunch of clown stuff,” I said. “But we better get back to work before big Bertha boots us out.”
As if on cue Bertha, the grimmest of our stodgy volunteers, plodded into the sorting room. “What’s all the commotion? We could hear you all the way in the store.”
“Clowning around,” Merryl chirped.
Vicki tried to grab the mask back. “Let me put it on for Bertha.”
“No way. It’s my turn.” To my surprise, Merryl slapped the mask over her face. In an instant she was transformed from an attractive forty-something year old into a tall, rangy clown. Her long, brown hair floated on a cloud of static electricity, but the thing that really surprised me was what she did next. She leaped, and I mean leaped, on top of the sorting table. Grabbing three of the clown figurines, she began a juggling act that could have rivaled Luke Burrage.
Even dull Bertha looked startled. “You’re all crazy as loons,” she sputtered.
“Wow, you’ve got talents I didn’t know about,” I said. But Vicki looked more annoyed than impressed. “My turn my turn my turn! Give me the mask!” She whined like a two year old about to throw a tantrum. It was so unlike her that I tore my eyes from the juggling act and gaped at my red-faced, wild-eyed friend.
To say that we didn’t get any more work done would be an understatement. Vicki and Merryl traded the mask back and forth the rest of the morning, startling me with their energy and antics. I was so worn out just watching them that I crashed when I got home.
The next day, and the day after that only got worse. Their clown act had been funny and amazing at first, but I was beginning to agree with Bertha. We were here to volunteer. A little fun was all well and good, but this reached a whole new level of insanity. I didn’t want to sound like Bertha and be accused of being a spoil sport, so I played along, hoping they’d tire of the mask.
Instead of getting tired of it, they worked less and less and wore it more and more. They both began arriving early in hopes of getting first dibs on the mask, and by the fourth day the fights and sulking had begun. Neither Vicki nor Merryl wanted to take the mask off. Instead, they fought over it like kids over the last M&M in the bag. The other volunteers complained and the volunteer coordinator, who usually coddles volunteers and never reprimands anybody, issued a stern warning. “Stop fooling around or you can’t come back.”
I tried to joke. “You two are the first people I ever knew who might get fired from a volunteer job.”
They didn’t think I was funny. They stopped scowling at each other long enough to direct their icy stares at me, and I felt a sudden shiver; a cold finger of dread. I turned away rather than face their glares and worked quietly sorting donations, feeling more like dull Bertha than I had ever expected to feel. I was angry at my friends for making me feel this way. They continued their antics behind me, juggling, cartwheeling, cavorting, and squabbling over the mask. They were still in the sorting room when I left, as if they couldn’t bear to leave.
The next day Vicki and Merryl didn’t show up. I was relieved, and felt guilty about being relieved. Maybe the volunteer coordinator had followed through and told them not to come back, or maybe they were just worn out. Suddenly I despised the mask, which lay face up on the sorting table, a grinning caricature that seemed to mock the absence of my friends.
I knew what I had to do. Grabbing the mask, I decided to stuff it in the dumpster, yet as soon as I touched the smooth cheek, stared at the crimson mouth, I was suffused with a sudden, hypnotic warmth. I felt inexplicably drawn to the garish face.
I started toward the dumpster, legs heavy and sluggish. A mixture of dread and anticipation produced a sheen of perspiration that dampened my neck. A trickle of fear caused my heart to stutter.
I could try it on, just once. Then I could throw it away. One time wouldn’t hurt. The mask seemed a living, breathing thing. I lifted it toward my face. Closer. It’s warmth caressed my cheeks. My breathing grew ragged. I slipped it on, felt it covering my nose, my mouth, hugging my skin. My legs, no longer sluggish, were lithe and agile, bending, leaping, spinning. My body carried me in somesaults, cartwheels, pirouettes that defied reason.
I was exhilarated!
Bertha had come in and she watched me, her mouth a dour line. I didn’t care! I pulled a handkerchief from her sleeve and she jumped back as if she’d been bitten by a cobra. She swatted my hand away when I tried to extract a coin from her ear, but this only egged me on. I cavorted like the Mad Hatter, exuberant and deranged.
I stayed at the store until closing time, longer than I had ever stayed, and Bertha practically had to throw me out. When I got home my heart pounded in anticipation of returning tomorrow.
The next morning I was up early, tingling with excitement. I could hardly wait to get to the store. Even though I skipped breakfast and barely glanced in the mirror, I seemed to be moving in slow motion, limbs caught in quicksand. I wanted to be there now, this minute! Every stop sign was an impediment; every extra minute an annoyance.
But when I got to the store, the mask was gone!
Where could it be? I’d left it on the sorting table behind a jumble of old clothes. I dug through the pile, growing more frantic, scattering clothes and tearing through bags. Bertha had padded in so quietly that I didn’t hear her until she spoke. “It’s not here.”
“What did you do with it?” My voice was hoarse with dread and rage.
“I gave it to a homeless man who was nosing around the dumpster last night after we closed. We can’t have that mask around here diverting the volunteers. It doesn’t belong to any of you. It was a donation, and he was thrilled to get it.”
I almost lunged for her; almost smacked that stern, self-righteous face. Almost plunged my fingernails into that satisfied grin. But some glimmer of reason emerged through the chaos of my madness and stopped me from tackling a fellow volunteer. Instead, I bolted from the room.
At home my heart pounded, a runaway train. Maybe if I splashed cold water on my face I would calm down; forget about the mask, and what I had almost done. I bent over the sink, filled my cupped hands, splashed again and again until water ran rivers down my face and dribbled onto my shirt. Only then did I look in the mirror.
I gasped. Turned away. Looked again. My nose had grown bulbous, a distorted orb. My cheeks, normally pale, glowed, lurid in the bathroom’s light. My straight dark hair was a fringe around my collar. I splashed water and screamed and tore at my hair, pulling it out in orange tufts.
How long would it be before my transformation was complete?
Writing Prompt #15