For Bea LaMonica and Gillian Hastings
Beatrice did not wake up in Heaven.
She lay flat on her back. The surface beneath her was hard as concrete, maybe bouncier, like those playgrounds made from recycled tires. Bitter crazy cold out, but she could not see her breath.
“Dead, then,” said Beatrice.
Not panic. Not exactly. A pang, maybe. Best not to pay attention to that. Might begin to gnaw holes in a girl when a girl most needs to be whole.
So Beatrice sat up and patted her head. Pigtails still held, thank the Good Goddess Durga, as Dad used to say…although Dad hadn’t believed in any pantheon predating Darwin, had gone gravy to the slaprash an atheist and a scientist and taking in vain the names of all fiend-eating ladygods sharing cross references in the ‘cyclopedia.
‘Spossible, she thought with an inward sparkle of enthusiasm, I meet up Dad in this place. We’ll discuss gods, or death, or breathing without breath, or whatever, like we used to do in the olden days, except…
Except this place seemed to stretch out forever like an elastic elephant skin. Empty. Or—not empty? There. A gleam of red and white, listing not too far from where she sat. A striped barber’s pole. A fat white glove at its pinnacle wriggling HELLO. The arrow of its index finger urged her down a path.
The path, Beatrice saw, was the same gray as ground and horizon, easy to miss. Just a thin groove to be picked across like the wirewalkers used to do under the big tops. Or a girl might elect to stroll with more dignity along its side. If a girl followed it at all.
But standing still invited the biting chill, and Beatrice shivered. The pointing glove reminded her of the Flabberghast’s hands, which were just as white, but much slimmer. Slim and graceful, nearly transparent, the fingers too long and the wrists too bony. He was the last thing she remembered: his long painted face peering at her through the bushes, his eyes shining black as beetles.
“He killed me!” Beatrice said aloud, startled. “Him and his diamond teeth.”
Well, she didn’t remember that part, not ezzactly. Not the getting gobbled part, only the part where he smiled.
But she was here, wasn’t she? And here could be anywhere, but it could also be in the Flabberghast’s stomach. And even if here were really elsewhere, she’d bet she’d left her bones behind to undergo eternal digestion. Danged Flabberghast! Old carrion eater. Old clown.
But how’d he get close enough? Beatrice had lived by the same command she’d drummed into her little Barka Gang. If she’d told Tex, Diodiance, Granny Two-Shoes, and Sheepdog Sal once, she’d told them a kajillion times: “Beware the Flabberghast.”
And when they asked her why, she’d said, “Well, because he’s a Tall One. Because he appeared in the gravy yard with the other eight after the world ended. Because he’s here to eat the bones, and he’ll eat yours when you go.”
“So?” Diodiance always asked. Diodiance liked the Flabberghast, liked his cardboard hut, his yellow shoes, his little way of bowing low. “We ain’t dead yet, so he can’t rightly eat us. Till our slaprashes show, Queen B, mayn’t he come over to play?”
Quick as a slung-shot rock, Beatrice always parried, “What if Ol’ Flabby don’t feel like waiting till your slaprash shows? What if he picks up a crushing stone with his weird white hand and caves in your skull, strips your flesh to stretch upon a great moony drum, and sucks your bones good and fresh? The Flabberghast’s not contained like the other Tall Ones. The gravy yard gates don’t hold him. Lives outside the arch in his cardboard hut, don’t he, while his friends slaver and babble and gobble up crypt-crunch behind the black iron bars, those white lights on their shoulders a-shinin’. And don’t he smile to be so free, aiming his big, bright teeth at any kiddo strayin’ bold from her gang.”
Tex, taking her pause for breath as permission, would jump in to plead with Diodiance: “Di, don’t stray.” Those two were just each other’s age, just shy of nine. His ashy, stiff hair stood on end at the thought of losing her.
“Oh. Awright.” Diodiance never did sound convinced.
And Beatrice, more quietly, made sure to repeat what they’d all heard before. “Don’t stray.” She gazed at her Barkas with the solemnity of her age. Twelve now, or thereabouts, and they all knew the slaprash would get her soon. Watching them remember this, she’d soften her fierceness to a smile.
“Barka dears, this is world’s end. You’ve only got a few years left to your names. You gotta live ‘em, not go playin’ flirt to Death’s own maggotman—no matter how he smiles and bows. Don’t go near the gravy yard. Don’t stray. And beware the Flabberghast.”
Sighing for her lost Barkas, Beatrice pushed herself up from the squishy hard ground. Her gait felt off. She glanced down.
“Appears,” she observed aloud, “I’m missing my shoe.”
Not only that, but the white cotton lace edging her left sock had gone all rusty. Looked old. Looked like it’d been dragged oh, many a long mile. Or like something had bled all over it. Someone.
Beatrice bit her lip, and even that felt like nothing, and she covered her eyes with her hands, but there was only the same gray inside as everywhere else. The thought of limping listlessly along that thin gray groove with only one shoe and a rusty sock was the three-ton straw set atop a brittle-boned and spindly-kneed camel, and it was enough, it was outside enough!
Beatrice crumpled and began to cry.
“Please!” she sobbed, her tears all dried to dust. “Oh, please! Oh, Durga! Oh, Dad! Daddy!”
Above her, pouring from a rip in the empty sky, something like ravens circled.
Tex crept back to the Catchpenny Shop-’n’-Save where the other members of the Barka Gang awaited.
“Beatrice is gone.”
His face, gussied up for recon, was ghoulish under the black paint. The whites of his eyes were very white, but his teeth looked yellow. Tex never did learn to brush regular, though Diodiance nightly whupped him upside his rattlebox for forgetting.
“Gone?” Diodiance asked. “Like, to the gravy yard?”
Tex shook his head. Fleas flew. “Nope. But I found a ribbon from her hair right there by the black iron gates. So I axed the Tall Ones through the bars if they’d seen her, and they smacked their lips and said, Nothing fresh has come in oh so long, and won’t I stand a little closer please, and what nice fat hands I have. I’m thinking, Di, you can’t go into the gravy yard ‘less you pass the Flabberghast. And I’m thinking, Di, it’s the Flabberghast what’s got Queen B for sure.”
Diodiance shook her head. “Ate her up, poor dead Beatrice!” She wrapped her arms hard around herself and tried to think how Beatrice would sound in their situation. Cool. Assured. At least four years older than anyone present.
“No more than we should’ve ‘spected,” she said at last. “Queen B told us her own dang self that the slaprash was bounded to boom her pretty soonish. And when it did, her body is bargained to the gravy yard. That’s the deal; our slaprash shows, we go and die where the Tall Ones can see us and eat us after. We do this, they stay behind the gates till the last of us is gonnered. They leave us alone.”
Tex did not look comforted. He squatted on the floor near the shoe racks. They were used shoes, lightly scuffed. You could still smell the feet of people who’d donated them to the Catchpenny way back in the olden days. A dead-people-feet smell. He turned to the third member of their gang.
“Whaddya think, Granny Two-Shoes? ‘Bout Beatrice? Is she not just gone but dead?”
Granny Two-Shoes looked up from the red-and-yellow race cars she’d found in the toy aisle. She had contemplated a race between the cars and the bullet casings she’d gleaned from the gutters, but decided that, while bullets indeed moved faster than cars, even a toy car bests a spent bullet. No race, really. No glory. It would be much more interesting to stack as many of them on top of each other as could balance unwobbled, then push them down for the smash! The lap of her white nightgown sagged under the weight of her treasures.
Granny Two-Shoes didn’t have regular language. Didn’t want it. She was half past three and thought she got on pretty well with Sheepdog Sal as interpreter. Tex buckled under her eloquent gaze and redirected his question to the dog.
“Okay, Granny. Tell Sal what you think, then. Have her bark once for dead, twice for gone, three for she’ll be home in time to feed us Cheerios.”
Bending her head to Sheepdog Sal’s flopsy ear, Granny Two-Shoes imparted her opinion in a way Sal would understand.
Sheepdog Sal barked once.
Tex and Diodiance stared at each other in despair. Sighing, Granny Two-Shoes went back to her pile of race cars and casings. She was rarely wrong, but that didn’t make being right any easier.
Tex knuckled the inner corners of his welling eyes. Diodiance never could bear his crying. Made her bawl like a swoll-bellied baby herself, not the pragmatic nearly nine-year-old she was. If the two of ‘em turned this into a big ol’ snotfest, it might upset Granny Two-Shoes into becoming ever more stoic. And Beatrice always said, “Let Granny be as much a child as she can bear. She’s the youngest girl in the whole wide world, and we owe her that.”
Diodiance got her squeezing heart under control. Opened her dark eyes wide. Squared her shoulders. Flung back her matted cornrows. Bared her teeth. She’d once fought off a wild Doberman with nothing but a yardstick and the Barka war cry. She could do what needed doing. Just watch.
“Tex. Granny. Sal. Way I’m seein’ it, we gotta do us some death rite. Queen B showed us how. Pick out a place she loved. Dec’rate it. Tinfoil balloons and Silly String, that picture of her dad she loved. Put what’s left of her there in a crow box. But keep of hers what’s useful,” she added mindfully, “like her slingshot.”
Tex sucked on his overbite. “To do the thing proper, we’d need her…leftovers.”
“Yup,” answered Diodiance, too quickly. “Which means…the Flabberghast.”
Diodiance sped ahead even faster. “We can win her stuff from him with games. Flabby likes games, and we Barkas are the best. No grown-up games, we’ll say. No chess or checkers or Scrabble-like stuff with words and counting. Maybe tag?”
Granny Two-Shoes cleared her throat. She contemplated the peeking tips of her pink, patent leather Mary Janes, and wondered how best to alert the others to the dangers she perceived. Sheepdog Sal was an angel of understanding, but there were nuances even she could not manage. Quickly, Granny laid out four race cars. She pointed to the first, then jabbed her finger at Tex. Likewise, she associated herself, Diodiance, and Sheepdog Sal with corresponding vehicles.
At last she showed them all a slim bullet casing, held in her pinched thumb and forefinger. With her free hand, she made a gesture in precise mimicry of the Flabberghast’s formal bow, with which he unfailingly greeted his visitors. The bullet casing, then, was the Flabberghast.
At Tex and Diodiance’s nods of comprehension, Granny Two-Shoes moved her playing pieces around the dirty tile floor in a game of tag. As the cars separated from one another and scattered in all directions, the deadly bullet casing sought each of them out separately and pounced, dragging them back to base. Checkmate.
“Granny’s right,” he said. “We gotta stick together. No tag, or even Hide-and-Seek, or Flabby’ll pick us off for sure.”
“Red Rover?” Diodiance suggested pragmatically.
Tex scratched his freckles. “Dunno. Ol’ Flabby’s pretty big. One of the tallest Tall Ones. He might break through, and then he’d win the game and bargaining rights. That won’t win us back B’s bones. “
Diodiance slowly lifted one leg behind her the way she’d learned in ballet, in the olden days, back before the slaprash. Easier to focus when balance is at stake. She stretched out an arm to finger the sleeve of a secondhand coat that hung on the fifty-percent-off rack.
Maybe she remembered, or maybe she had dreamed, shopping with her momma at the Catchpenny. Eight-dollar winter coats. Made of real wool. Red wool. From red sheep, Momma used to say. All the way from London. That was all acrost the sea, which was bigger than the big lake to the East, and even the lake was like something out of Queen B’s bedtime stories, for Diodiance had never seen it, and never would. She settled into a plié.
“Here’s what, Barkas. Come noon-up, we’ll parley with the Flabberghast. We owe Queen B her death rite. Remember when she faced off Aunt Oolalune with fisticuffs? Remember when she led the march on the Rubberbaby Gang, and won Granny Two-Shoes back for the Barkas? Not for her, Granny’d be slave bait still to those dirty snotbums.”
Tex shifted. Not quite a shrug. Not quite an agreement. Diodiance had never understood his problem with the Flabberghast. With her it was never, “Isn’t the Flabberghast scary as thunder?” but always “Isn’t the Flabberghast fancy and strange?” and, “Isn’t the Flabberghast’s voice so sweet?” and, “Don’t the Flabberghast smell like pineapples and toothpaste and broken perfume bottles and the moonlight on pine trees?”
Her obsession was, in his opinion, unfortunate. But she was correct; Beatrice deserved this much from them upon her death. She had taken care of them far back as he could remember. He could not remember the olden days. Sometimes he didn’t think he believed in them.
Oh, if only they could deal with any other Tall One but the Flabberghast. At least the rest of them dwelled behind the gravy yard wall. You could keep the gate between you and the white lights on their shoulders. You could offer them old bones through the bars in exchange for stuff that came from the graves they exhumed for their banquets. Diamond rings, or pictures in fancy frames, or bouquets of flowers tied up in someone’s braided hair. Best were their queer shiversome stories about life under the hills, with the folks they only ever referred to as “those underground.”
But to creep close to the gray stone arch, where the Flabberghast lived in his cardboard house? Where he lived outside the black iron gates, with nothing keeping him in?
That was like cutting off your finger in shark water.
WELCOME TO CHUCKLE CITY!!! IT’S A LAUGH A MINUTE!!!
Beatrice stood before a high wall. The stones of the watchtower were as shiny a pink as a piece of watermelon bubblegum all blown up. The billboard that announced the city was lettered in bold yellow, with six orange exclamation points like floating construction cones.
Balloons tangled in the portcullis. Balloons tied to the barbed wire lining the heights of the walls. Balloons flying like pennants from the watchtower’s parapet, lurid against the uniform sky.
From beyond the balloon-obscured grid of the portcullis came a thin strain of cheerful music. It sounded as if a very small person in a very large coffee can played it, just for laughs.
If she ever felt less like laughing, Beatrice couldn’t remember. Her mouth pulled down at the edges as if weights hung from her lips. She could feel the hard pinch of her brows drawn tightly together. Dad had always called that look “Nana Larsson’s Evil Eye,” and said he knew what side of the family Beatrice favored that day, and for Durga’s sake, might he be spared?
Today, Beatrice didn’t feel like sparing anyone her Evil Eye. Not the billboard, not the city, not the gray groove, or the gray sky, or the large gray ravens circling above.
She just wanted Dad. That was all. And Dad was not here, though she had been walking forever.
A silky, silly breeze danced over her brow. It was not sunshine, but it was the closest thing to it Beatrice had known since her arrival in these deadlands. The breeze seemed to chime, seemed to tickle and tingle and ring. Beatrice almost smiled. But before she could make up her mind, the breeze went away again, and so did her inclination.
About that time, a jolly shout echoed down from the pink watchtower:
“Ho there, girlington! Are you new to the Big Bah-Ha?”
“Is that where I am?” Beatrice asked, looking up but not raising her voice.
“Why, of course you are here! Where did you think you were?”
Beatrice shrugged. “Been walkin’ alone since I got here. Except for the—the critterbirds.”
Beatrice pointed at the sky, toward the gray ravens. From a window in the watchtower, out popped a small, round face with round, pink-painted cheeks, glittering tinsel-green eyelashes, and a head of hair as blue as radioactive violets. Owl-like, the head twisted nearly full circle to stare up into the sky. Seeing the gray ravens for herself, she gasped.
“Gacy Boys!” squeaked the little clown. “And you still all in one piece! Bless my soul!”
“I threw my shoe at one when it got too close,” Beatrice said. Her socks she had stripped a while back, tossing them over her shoulder like salt to ward off ghosts. After a lot of walking and squinting at the sky, she couldn’t help but notice that the ravens only looked like ravens when you expected them to be ravens. But if you stared through your lashes and a little sideways-like, weren’t they something else again?
Something with heads that might be human, hooded like hangmen.
But Beatrice did not tell the little clown any of that. She already seemed upset enough. Even her pink paint seemed to blanch. She whimpered what sounded like, “Oh, the poor tidbit! The poor cutlet!”
“I’m Beatrice,” said Beatrice.
“Oh! How rude I am!” The little clown’s body followed her face right out of the tower window. She crawled in all her crinoline and sequins down the pink stones, face first and feet clinging to the plastic ivy. Her frills fell over her shoulders, revealing big polka-dot bloomers and spangled green tights. She did a neat flip near the bottom of the tower, and landed on her tiptoes on the ground.
Diodiance would die, Beatrice thought, almost grinning.
But the idea of Diodiance dying and waking up here made her feel oh, so very sick, so she frowned all the more blackly. The little clown, who looked as if she’d wanted to do a “Ta-da!” decided against it.
“I’m Rosie Rightly,” she blatted instead. “Hello! Hi! Hello! Oh, Beatrice, it’s so good to see you! Welcome to Chuckle City! It’s a laugh a minute! All laughs, all the time! Come in! Come in!”
“How?” asked Beatrice. “Gate’s closed.”
“Oh. Um.” Rosie Rightly stared at the portcullis as if she’d never seen one before. Then she shrugged and banged a fist on the balloon-festooned grid. The grate creaked up slowly. Several balloons popped with the sound of bullets, reminding Beatrice of home, of the end of the olden days, back when the grown-ups had tried to contain the slaprash to one area. It hadn’t worked. The slaprash took all the grown-ups first. Even the ones with masks and guns.
“Easy-peasy,” said Rosie Rightly, trying to usher Beatrice through the gate. Beatrice dug her feet in a little. “Only, you forget it’s there sometimes. Silly to have a gate here anyway. There’s only one city in all the whole Big Bah-Ha, and nothing beyond it. Nothing. Nothing. So why keep anyone out? Everyone wants in, don’t they? Why shouldn’t they?”
When Beatrice glanced uneasily at the sky, Rosie Rightly patted her hand. “They’re okay. The Gacy Boys live here. They belong to the Gray Harlequin. But sometime he lets them out to eat.”
“What do they eat? If there’s nothin’ outside Chuckle City.”
Rosie Rightly’s pink mouth formed a great big O. Then she stretched her lips over a toothy grimace and said, “Haven’t had one like you in a while. You’re one of those sparky-smarts, ain’t you?! That’s great! Only maybe it’d be better if you wasn’t. Not that you can help it. But come on!”
She slipped her little hand, gloved in pink net, her fingernails painted with sparkly green glitter, through Beatrice’s arm and tugged her through the open gate. Beatrice almost backed out again as the first wave of heat licked her face.
What she saw stopped her deader in her tracks.
Every building in Chuckle City was on fire.
Diodiance combat-crawled through the weeds for a better look. Seemed all clear, so she signaled the A-Okay to Tex, who slouched into a squat in the overgrown hydrangea behind her. Further down the road, Granny Two-Shoes lay in the gutter with Sheepdog Sal sitting “guard” nearby. Granny had her binoculars, so she saw what was about to happen, but it was too late to warn them, and besides—wasn’t it what they all wanted? So she watched, but did not set Sal to barking.
Diodiance strained her senses and took stock of the scene. Cardboard house—empty. Blue lawn chair—vacant. Emissary at the eastern gates—defected.
A worm of a scant of an inch closer. Adjust the thornstick sheathed in her belt loop. Squint. Sniff. Wipe nose on sleeve. Glance again.
The Flabberghast’s hut was an old refrigerator box with a green-and-gold silk sari thrown over it. Icicle lights all the colors of a crayon box dripped from its edges, the unplugged prongs dangling in the wind. Come dusk they’d light up. No one knew why.
Sometimes a frayed edge of the sari flapped aside, showing a palatial foyer just beyond the front flap. Marble halls. Portraits. Tapestries. Vases. The Tall Ones lived in two worlds at once, Beatrice used to say. Or more.
Pounding fist to dirt, Diodiance whispered, “It’s a wash.” Then, louder, so Tex could tell the others, “Ain’t even a left-handed shadow to wave us hello! Granny? Sal? Tex, come on out here. No need to sneak. Flabby ain’t home.”
Tex emerged from his blind, brushing leaves from his hair. Granny rode up on Sal’s back, clutching her fur like a mane. She dismounted beneath the arched entrance of the gravy yard, with its creakily swinging sign that said WELCOME TO HILLSIDE in cut out letters.
Having seen what was to come from way back in her gutter, Little Granny Two-Shoes was the only Barka who did not jump when a great voice shattered the silence.
“Good afternoon, children!”
That voice was like a Slinky toy going downhill, like shouting into a well after someone fell in, like a piece of expensive caramel melting in a slant of afternoon sunlight. It was a voice that made Diodiance pirouette, and set a rigid scowl upon Tex’s brow. Sheepdog Sal began to bark. Little Granny Two-Shoes scratched her just beneath the jaw.
“By all the skulls of Arlington National Cemetery!” cried the Flabberghast. “If it isn’t the Barka Gang!”
They all turned to look. Banana-yellow shoes rocked about his feet like dinghies. Up. Legs as long as stilts and thin as straight pins in their loose white silk trousers. Up. Past a coat of sweeping peacock feathers, a vest of red brocade, a fine lawn cravat. Up, and up, and up to his white-painted face, his long black mouth, his long black eyes, those curls of flaming orange hair peeking out from beneath a sequined derby hat.
“And how may I help you?” asked the Flabberghast politely.
“Beatrice is dead,” Tex blurted before Diodiance said something happy and solicitous.
“We need her stuff for a death rite. We’re pretty sure you have it.”
“I see. Yes. That might prove…problematic.”
Tex stepped forward with fists up, to show the Flabberghast the meaning ofproblematic, but Diodiance shoved him to the side before he got too close. He fell against Sheepdog Sal’s flank, and Sal turned to lick his wrist. Granny Two-Shoes took his hand in hers, and this more than anything stopped Tex from launching himself at the Flabberghast.
The Flabberghast gave no sign of noticing this altercation. His gaze had meandered beyond the Barka Gang. Beyond the black iron gates, a few of the Tall Ones left off their endless feasting and began to drift curiously toward them. The white lights on their shoulders flickered and burned.
The Flabberghast put a long white hand on top of Diodiance’s head. Blissfully, she leaned in.
“Allow me to offer armistice and hospitality. Come with me into my hut. As per the edicts stipulated in the original bargain between vestigial Homo sapiens and the Tall Ones, I shall not harm a single split hair on any one of your heads till the day you are marked to die. We must speak further of your Beatrice, but the situation is far too complex for casual graveside chatter. While I do not doubt my colleagues would find our forthcoming conversation stimulating, as civilized people, we may exercise the right to exclude whom we will from our private affairs. Do not you agree?”
“Ain’t goin’ in your stinky old house,” Tex muttered.
“Fine,” Diodiance snapped at him. “Stay outside, you cowardbaby. That’ll get Queen B her death rite quick enough.”
Granny Two-Shoes, who still held his hand, now squeezed with intent. Tex allowed her to tug him into the cardboard hut after Diodiance, with Sheepdog Sal trotting behind, and the Flabberghast following last.
The first thing they saw, after the marble-floored foyer itself, was her skin.
It hung from one blank wall, stretched out and tacked there with silver nails. They knew the skin belonged to Beatrice because her hair was red. Not orange-red like the Flabberghast’s. Red like when a fire dies.
“Beatrice!” Diodiance screamed. This time Tex did punch the Flabberghast. Right in the knee.
The Flabberghast stumbled against a small table that held, among other things, a flensing tool and a familiar brown loafer (a scuffed size six, women’s) all under the coating of gray dust that comes from crunching bones. He hit the table’s edge and his peacock coat snarled him. Searching for purchase, his hands closed on air. This close up, he was not graceful. Not like he’d always seemed, sitting out in his blue lawn chair with his legs stretched before him like unfurled fire hoses.
Diodiance flinched against the wall, shielding Granny Two-Shoes with her body, Tex at her side, Beatrice’s skin at her back. Granny Two-Shoes saw something on the floor and bent to pick it up. Beatrice’s slingshot.
This put the Flabberghast between them and the door. He stood very still now, arms hanging loosely at his sides.
“You killed her!” Diodiance said. It wasn’t a sob, and it wasn’t a growl, but it was something like both.
“I do not eat the living,” said the Flabberghast.
“You killed her and stripped her flesh and ate her bones.”
The Flabberghast splayed one hand over his stomach. His diamond teeth gleamed and glinted, as if a spotlight in his belly shone up and out his throat, through his lips, casting rainbows all around him.
“She died at my feet,” he said. “She was in the final stages when I found her. The slaprash marked her face, all down one side. Nothing to save. She was just that age.” He shrugged, as if to say, “The rest you know. I am what I am.”
Tex gnawed his lip to keep back a wail.
“I wish your Beatrice had come to me earlier,” reflected the Flabberghast. “Those underground have informed us here of a matter in the deadlands that needs our immediate attention. Not being bound by the black iron gates, I am the only Tall One at liberty to perform the task. However. To do so, I shall need the help of a living child.Willing help, I should say. Otherwise, the door to the deadlands opens only one way, and I have no particular desire to be stuck on the far side of it. Had your Beatrice trusted me more, or perhaps loved you less, she would have done splendidly. She was so strong. Not fearless, but not one to fear foolishly. This journey would have prepared her for the one she now must undergo. Alas, she died too soon. I liked her. I might have used her to better purpose than as a lunchbox.” He paused. “I don’t suppose any of you might volunteer to be of assis—”
“Never!” spat Diodiance through her tears. “Never, until the end of the end of the world! I’d sooner slap myself right now and bleed out bawlin’ murder!”
Hearing the quaver in her voice, Tex slung an arm around her, and stated, “Me, neither!”
His free hand grasped a stone in his pocket. He was already gauging distance, velocity, angle, wondering if Tall Ones felt pain like humans, if they had brains to concuss, if the great holes that were their eyes could be put out…
The Flabberghast turned those black-dark eyes on him. Tex’s hand went numb.
“A pity.” The Flabberghast’s long fingers drummed the silver buttons on his red brocade vest. “For, in return for your ready collaboration, I would offer my brave adventurer a chance to see Beatrice again. I need to travel to a certain level of the deadlands, to the place she now resides. Only a child may bring me there. And only a living child may bring me out again.”
A bark, and Tex and Diodiance sprang apart. Granny Two-Shoes, once again mounted like a maharani atop Sheepdog Sal, came forward. Her thin blond hair had not been combed in two days. There was chocolate on her face from the icing she’d eaten for breakfast, a cut on her knee where she’d fallen that morning. But her eyes were steady, blue as the Flabberghast’s were black, and she held out her hand. He stared down at her.
“Even in an epoch that deplores such conventions,” said he, “and though you are by far the most superior three-year-old representative of your species I have ever come across, I cannot help but feel that you are not quite of an age to consent.” His long black mouth twisted a little as if he wanted to say something more. Instead he flipped his palm like a playing card. When Granny laid her own hand there, he bowed over it.
“You are very brave. And I thank you for the offer, but—”
Tex barged forward, breaking their link of flesh. “Think you can stop her, Flabby? You? Stop Granny Two-Shoes?” And he laughed a laugh like wet tissue paper tearing. “You can’t keep Granny from her Beatrice, and you can’t keep us from Granny. If she’s a-goin’, I’m a-goin’.”
“I’ll go, too,” Diodiance announced, stepping away from the wall. “We’ll do Queen B’s death rite to her face. We’ll say goodbye.” She didn’t look over her shoulder at that horrible skin.
“My stars!” cried the Flabberghast. “What enterprising children you are! What pioneering spirits! What gumption. You don’t faint at the sight of blood, do you?”
They all glared at him, wearing, between them, more scab than rags, and he grinned, and the marble foyer of the cardboard hut danced with the rainbows cast by his diamond teeth.
“Of course not,” he murmured. “How silly of me.”
The Flabberghast held up his left hand, folding thumb and fingers into palm, all except for his pinkie. This he held erect like a spindle, and the Barka Gang saw that his long nail was sparkling clear as his teeth.
“I’ll just need a drop of your blood,” he explained. “Your canine companion’s, too, if you wish her to accompany us.”
One by one, at the Flabberghast’s direction, they pricked the soft spot at the center of their wrists, and the tip of Sal’s panting tongue, too, and filed over to the stretched skin on the wall. They pressed their blood upon it. Diodiance signed her name. Tex made a big “T.” Granny drew something that could have been a flower or a bone or a bullet. Sheepdog Sal licked the place where Beatrice’s big toe had been.
The Flabberghast himself scored open his own palm. The hut filled with a smell that drowned the copper trickle of mortal blood in citrus-wine-wildflower-campfire-tidewater-leaf, and what leaked out of his skin was black like his eyes, and like his eyes full of tiny, whirling lights.
The blackness spread over Beatrice’s stretched skin, overwhelming the tiny dots of blood like raindrops converging on a windowpane. The drop becomes a stream, the stream a puddle, the puddle a lake. The blackness spread. And Beatrice’s skin became a door.
Granny Two-Shoes was the first one to step through.
Every building in Chuckle City was on fire. The buildings were tenements, and from their high, flaming windows rained a constant bombardment of grotesque little clowns. They smashed on the cobblestones below. Sometimes they jumped right up from the stones and dragged themselves back into the burning buildings to do the thing all over again. More often they just lay there and writhed on the cracked stones, ragged clothes smoking, the white greasepaint on their faces gray with soot, red noses charred. They twitched.
In the middle of Main Street, a skinny girl in a monkey mask, or perhaps a skinny monkey in a girl suit, cranked out “Ode to Joy” on her hurdy-gurdy. Beatrice shivered. The whole city smelled like ash.
“Isn’t it FUNNY?” asked Rosie Rightly. “Isn’t it a RIOT?”
Beatrice looked at her with solemn eyes. “You think that’s funny?”
But Rosie Rightly was undaunted, or seemed to be. “It’s always funny when things fall out a window.”
Another bright upchuck of screaming bodies hit the pavement. A tiny clown near Beatrice’s feet made a burbling sound that might have been laughter. Beatrice really did not think it was.
“Look at them bounce!” screamed Rosie Rightly. “Ga-DOING! Ga-DOING!”
When Beatrice did not respond, Rosie Rightly patted her on the shoulder. “Don’t worry your warts, Bee-Bee-licious. You can’t kill the dead. They’re fine. They’re all fine.” She pushed a lock of blue hair from her forehead. “So just relax. Have a laugh, would you?” Her lips trembled. “Please?”
Beatrice studied the bodies on the ground. Heaps of little clowns. Smoldering.
Just like this two years ago, she remembered, when the slaprash first came to town. For a while the grown-ups tried to put up some kind of…quartermain? Or, calamine… She forgot what Dad had called it. Roadblocks at all entrances and exits. To keep the slaprash in. To prevent panicked folks from getting out.
At first they tried burying their dead in big pits, then they were just burning them, but soon there weren’t enough grown-ups left to do any of that. Fires got out of control. Whole neighborhoods burned down. That was when the soldiers came. They didn’t last long, either. None of the grown-ups lasted. The slaprash took them all and left the children behind. With a lot of bullet casings and bones.
“First comes the handprint
Then comes the flush
Then come the shaky-shakes
Breath starts to rattle
Like dice in a cup
And the slaprash’ll getcha
Beatrice slammed her hands over her ears and shook off the nasty din of jump ropes. Worst thing in a long list of bad that the Rubberbaby Gang ever did, inventing that jump rope rhyme and spreading it ‘round. Their leader Aunt Oolalune, nearly Beatrice’s age, remembered all the rhymes from the olden days, Seuss and Silverstein, Gorey and Lear. The kiddy gangs loved her for her rhymes, but especially that one. It was their own, the only gravestone they’d get. Forget “Ring Around the Rosie” and “Susie Has a Steamboat.” “The Slaprash Rhyme,” like its namesake, went viral, went everywhere. What Dad would’ve called ubittinus. No, that wasn’t the word.
Beatrice watched the little clowns scrape themselves off the ground and trudge into the burning buildings. Flames swallowed them. Bodies plummeted from high windows. The gleeful (or not) screaming began again.
Beatrice turned to Rosie Rightly, who grinned her manic grin. “Whaddya think, Bee-Bee?”
“Is this it, Rosie? This all there is?”
“We-ell.” Rosie Rightly squirmed like she had to pee. “I could show you something else, sure! There’s lots of great things here. It’s Chuckle City! It’s a laugh a minute. Like, like, look at these guys! The rustics! I love me some rustics!” She pointed at an approaching ambulance. “These guys are FUNNY. Wait and see!”
The tiny ambulance whizzed past them. Three rustics hung from its windows. They wore straw hats and overalls, glasses without lenses, fake tufts of white hair glued to their chins. Their faces were contorted in identical expressions of constipation. The ambulance itself was locomotioned by no engine but the hustle of their bare feet. When the feet stopped moving, the ambulance dropped, neatly squashing one of the supine victims of the tenement fires.
From beneath the steel frame came a soft moan. A splatter of bodies later and the moan was lost to the tautophony of the scene. The rustics climbed out of their ambulance, cursing one another’s clumsiness.
“If ya’ll’d dropped it over there, Mr. Wick, we could’ve smushed two!”
“Weren’t two bodies lying close enough together for that, Mr. Jones.”
“Could’ve waited, Mr. Gibbs. More come down every second, like bird poop!”
They clustered around the smushed clown like farmers at a town hall meeting, discussing blight.
“Broked, Mr. Wick!” said one.
“Backbone clean severed, Mr. Gibbs!” said another.
“What to do, Mr. Jones?” asked a third.
“I know!” answered the first. “Let’s make balloon aminals!”
“Balloon aminals! Oh, yay!” squealed Rosie Rightly, dancing around Beatrice, who tried not to feel sick. “BULLY! Oh, they’re great, Bee-Bee! You’re going to love them!”
From pockets, hats, folds of cuffs, rolls of socks, the rustics drew out flaccid balloon skins and began inflating them with such gust and vigor that behind fake beards and empty glasses frames, their smooth young faces turned purple, and puce, and orange. Soon the balloons humped up, took on vivid, twisted shapes, the shapes of things best left under beds and in the dark of closets, and they grew large and larger, aerial sculptures that vied for the greatest ghoulishness. Only when they became truly huge and horrible did the rustics at last tie them off, whipping out black Sharpies from their bibs to scribble in teeth, eyes, scales, claws. Soon the balloons were not balloons at all, but buoyant beasts that turned on their makers and began chomping at them. The rustics tried to fight them off, but were snapped up, shaken apart, eaten, spat out again.
Rosie Rightly no longer danced. She stared at the balloons with an expression of abject misery. But she did not move.
Beatrice stumbled back from the bright melee, dragging Rosie Rightly by her pink chiffon princess sleeve.
“Let’s go, Rosie. Show me the way out of Chuckle City. You can come, too. I’ll take care of you, I—”
“Too late.” Rosie Rightly’s tinsel-lashed eyes were bright with tears she could no longer cry, but her never-ending smile showed a full crescent of teeth. “It’s the Big Bah-Ha for me and for you, lambikin, unless—”
A balloon aminal loomed too close, leering. Beatrice batted at it with a fist and pulled Rosie Rightly out of range behind a charred building. Rosie Rightly began to slump against the wall, but Beatrice took her blue head between her hands and pressed their foreheads together.
“Focus. We have to stay in the Big Bah-Ha, you said, unless…?”
Rosie Rightly fiddled with her gloves. They had torn in the scuffle. Beatrice saw her wrists through the pink net, where two large wounds glowed as red as coals. Seeing her look, Rosie Rightly clasped her hands behind her.
“Unless,” she stammered, “the—the Gray Harlequin releases you. There’s a place beyond the mirror, but—but it’s so hard. Hard to get there. Too hard.”
They stared at each other, clown and girl. Beatrice tried to interpret Rosie Rightly’s expression. The shine of her very-nearly-tears had already vanished. Her smile was fixed. She tore her puffy pink sleeve from Beatrice’s grip and fluffed it up again.
“Poor Bee-Bee,” she giggled. “So serious all the time! If you want, I’ll take you to the Gray Harlequin. He’s probably by the mirror. Always looking into it, and no wonder, for he’s the prettiest clown of all. He wears the August Crown. I think he’s been here forever. Or at least,” she added, “since I arrived. Same thing.”
“This is where dead kids have to go? The Big Bah-Ha?” Diodiance scanned the lay of the land, her round brown eyes skeptical. “Maybe I’ll just become a Tall One instead. Wear a white light on my shoulder. Eat some bones. I tell ya, Tex, our good ol’ gravy yard is lookin’ like a big bucketful of screamin’ monkey-fun from where I’m standin’.”
Tex scratched under his left arm. “Look there.” He pointed to a sunken gray groove where an empty sock ringed in rusty lace lay. Picking it up, he put it in his pocket.
“Very astute,” breathed the Flabberghast. “What keen eyes you have, Young Texas! Like the Prince of Peregrines, you watch the world below.”
“Shut up, Flabby,” said Tex.
The Flabberghast crossed his arms, portraying nonchalance not very well at all. The corner of his mouth got up a tic. His peacock coat swung with the force of his shrug. All the Tall Ones wore white lights upon their shoulders, but the top of the Flabberghast’s coat sleeve carried only a scorch mark. The Barka Gang used to spend whole nights speculating where that light had gone.
“Children,” he observed in a hurt voice, “too often take the aggressive myth of the Napoleon complex to an unbecoming extreme.”
Granny Two-Shoes cleared her throat. It made a sound in the dead gray air like a wooden spoon banged with no particular rhythm against a plastic bucket. She put her hand over her heart. Had it missed a beat? Was this dying? Was she dead?
The Flabberghast’s painted-on creases softened when he gazed at her. “No. Not yet, Miss Granny. But our time here must perforce be limited, for these are the deadlands, and you must not lavish them too long with the extravagance of your living youth. Perhaps in the past, you might have stayed a trifle longer, but the very equivalence of air here seems sucked dry. This land,” he sighed, “is too much changed from what it was.”
Granny Two-Shoes paused to nuzzle her face against Sheepdog Sal’s brown fur. In return for this she received a reassuring lick. It cleared her head.
In these deadlands, thought Granny Two-Shoes, might merely being alive mean being too alive? Are we flaunting our liveliness to these dead gray skies? Are we attracting the attention of the dead? Can the dead harm the living? What does harmmean here, where hurt doesn’t necessarily stop with the cessation of a heartbeat? Where there is no hope of healing?
The Flabberghast caught her eye and held a finger to his lips. Hush was implied, but all he said aloud was, “Check your cuts, children,” in a voice that even Tex obeyed.
Diodiance dabbed at her wrist, at the place she had torn it against the Flabberghast’s fingernail. “Still bleedin’.”
“Good,” said the Flabberghast. “We can stay here until your scab forms and closes. Keep a lively eye upon it. And another on the sky.”
Tex’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “What’re we lookin’ for?”
For answer, Granny Two-Shoes threw out her arms and flapped so vigorously she almost fell off of Sheepdog Sal. Sal turned around in circles, trying to keep her rider astride.
“Bad birds?” Diodiance guessed.
“Sad birds,” Tex corrected.
“Not birds at all,” said the Flabberghast. “But”—he bowed to Granny Two-Shoes—”I am impressed.”
Nothing more was said on the subject. The Flabberghast unfurled his hands in a herding gesture and once more they all started moving along the gray groove. Tex and Diodiance marched at the vanguard, taking inventory of their pockets, swapping out what they didn’t want with each other. PayDay candy bars for watermelon-flavored Jolly Ranchers, bullet casings for smooth pebbles, bones for crayons. A happy breeze riffled their hair like a mother’s fingers, conveying sunshine and safety and the promise of joyful rest. Gone too soon.
The Flabberghast, taking up the rear, sniffed for traces of that breeze when it departed. He frowned at what lingered.
Equidistant between them, Granny Two-Shoes rode Sheepdog Sal at a pleasant trot. She didn’t bother listening in on Tex’s and Diodiance’s conversation, which she generally considered comfortable white noise to stimulate her own ruminations. She didn’t look over her shoulder to see what shenanigans the Flabberghast got up to; he had his own agenda, and it was not hers. But she did check the twin holsters she wore beneath her nightgown. One for her switchblade. One for Beatrice’s slingshot. She was ready for anything.
Rosie Rightly led Beatrice away from the burning buildings. They passed a dusty little market square with tattered awnings over abandoned booths that read, “TENDER LEONARD’S JOKES AND GAGS!” and “SOLOMON SOT’S SOCIETY OF CAREFREE KIDDIES!” and “FRABJOUS THE FOOL’S POPULAR PUPPETS!”
“Where is everyone?”
Rosie Rightly shrugged. “Those’re the clowns that did their job. Made the kids laugh, helped ‘em move on. When the kids moved on, so did they. That’s why the Big Bah-Ha’s here—’cause it’s never funny when a kid dies. We have to learn to laugh again, before we can go through…to whatever’s next.”
“That’s what all the clowns are for?” asked Beatrice.
Rosie Rightly nodded. “That’s what they were for, way back before I got here. I think the Big Bah-Ha was different then. But that’s done with. The Gray Harlequin says we’re all clowns now.”
Beatrice tugged one of her braids. One of her ribbons was missing, and another had gone all loosey-goosey. The thought of losing another ribbon gave her a sick jolt of panic. She tightened it fiercely. The panic receded.
“Were you always a clown, Rosie?”
“No,” Rosie Rightly sighed. “I just…never learned to laugh.” She touched her painted face.
Rosie Rightly started skipping. Her flounces flounced. Her sequins flashed. Everything about her was gleeful with cheer, except her round blue eyes. She pointed at the dusty market with glittering fingernails.
“I know it looks all sad and dusty and stuff. But really it’s GREAT! It means that if we do our jobs, then some day, we can go back to the mirror. Take a look at ourselves again. Tell ourselves, we brought joy to the joyless. We deserve the next world, too. And this time, this time, we’ll be able to meet our own eyes without flinching. We’ll know we’re worthy. Like Solly Sot, and Frabjoojooface, and Lenny, and Sudsy Aimee, and Snotty Sue. They did it. They learned to see themselves as something other than dead. They got through. I will too. Someday.”
Beatrice nodded, frowning. “Is that hard? Seein’ yourself?”
“It’s the hardest. You look in the mirror the first time, and all you see—” Rosie Rightly gulped. “But the Gray Harlequin says…” Here she stopped, shook herself. Poked Beatrice in the ribs. “Hey. Bee-Bee. You think I’m funny? You do, right? You think I’m the funniest?”
Beatrice patted her gloved hand, avoiding the luminous wound on her wrist. “Keep tryin’, Rosie.”
Rosie Rightly hunched her shoulders. They were just coming upon a section of Chuckle City where a colossal tent loomed larger than any three of the burning tenements put together. The tent’s canvas was striped red and white like the barber’s pole Beatrice had seen in her first moments of the Big Bah-Ha. Red and white. Blood and bone. Near the curtained-off entrance, a twinkling Ferris wheel turned and turned into eternity.
“That’s the Big Top,” Rosie Rightly whispered. Her expression said she wanted to scurry by, but her feet dragged to a standstill. “The tramps live there. They ride tigers and swing from wires.” A shiver wracked her. Beatrice could see the raised bumps beneath her painted flesh.
“When you’re inside the Big Top and you look up, all you see are spiderwebs. The Eleven Lovely Emilies spin them, web on web. The Emilies all have beautiful red hair, like yours.” Rosie Rightly’s eyes lingered on Beatrice’s hair. “And they have red eyes like hourglasses, and four arms and four legs apiece. They spin nets to catch the tramps should they chance to tumble from their wires. Whenever a tramp falls, the Eleven Lovely Emilies can eat. Their red tongues go all the way down to here!” Rosie Rightly touched her tummy.
Like Dad’s dark ladygods, Beatrice thought, with their many limbs, and scarlet mouths, and the way they could eat whole armies.
Beatrice did not want to see the Emilies. Not without Dad at her side to explain them. Sure, in legends the ladygods could be brought to compassion, to show a mercy as miraculously ardent as their appetites. But no mercy remained here in the Big Bah-Ha, she thought, else Chuckle City would long since have been razed to dust.
“Do you want to see them?” Rosie asked, as if afraid of the answer.
Whatever Dad’s old ‘cyclopedia used to say, these Eleven Lovely Emilies could only be hideous. If Beatrice saw them, she knew her heart would break. She tightened her ribbon again.
“I want to see the Gray Harlequin,” she said.
Rosie Rightly began to bounce on the balls of her feet. “We could do that, or…Or! Or! Or!”
“Instead of seeing the G-gray Harlequin, we could go to the petting zoo!”
Beatrice vaguely remembered petting zoos from the olden days. Sad sheep and decrepit llamas, dirty chickens running underfoot, rabbits in cages, bristly pigs setting the stable a-snore, and the whole place smelling earthy and unsavory. But the animals were pretty neat-o. They ate from the palm of your hand.
“Sometimes,” Rosie Rightly nattered on, “the Gacy Boys go big game hunting out beyond Chuckle City. They bag prizes to bring back—and that’s the petting zoo.”
Beatrice did not remind Rosie Rightly of her first assertion—that nothing lived in the Big Bah-Ha outside Chuckle City. No place but here. But if the Gacy Boys could fly beyond these walls, she wondered if she might scale them. Was there a back door? If she ran free, would the Gacy Boys bag her next, and bring her back to put in their petting zoo, and feed her to the beasts trapped there?
“At night, in the arena under the Big Top, the Gray Harlequin will pit one of the petting zoo against his prize tigers. Or sometimes against one of us! It’s stu-stupendous! Action-packed! Irresistible. Wanna see?”
“No,” said Beatrice, very firmly. “I don’t like fights.”
“You don’t like anything!”
Back with her Barka Gang, Beatrice had fought several battles against the Rubberbaby Gang and Aunt Oolalune. The skirmishes were usually quick and dirty. The weapons were grab-what-you-can. Sticks, stones, switchblades, slingshots. Rules were generally, ”First blood ends the fight / Whoever’s not bleeding wins.” But of course, first blood had a tendency to enrage and incite. Often it was followed by second blood, and third blood, until there was blood everywhere, and the Tall Ones were slavering at the gravy yard gates in the hopes that their next meal succumbed to death sooner than the slaprash scything it down.
How could any such rule as “first blood” apply here, where nothing bled? You could be burned, smushed, and ripped apart, but you’d still go on and on. Like the fires, and the balloon aminals, and Rosie Rightly’s grin. Horrors without end.
“I wanna see the Gray Harlequin,” said Beatrice grimly.
“All riii-iiight.” Rosie Rightly drooped. “If you’re sure.”
“Sure as spit means a promise.”
“You’re gonna have to look in the mirror before he’ll meet you, and I just don’t think you’re ready, I really don’t.” Rosie Rightly’s grin bent upsy-daisy of itself. “You don’t want to—to—get stuck here, Bee-Bee. Like me. And the rest. You still have time. You might learn how to laugh again before you go and look.” She canted her pink-gloved hands helplessly. “Maybe I could try a cartwheel? I usually fall. Bam! Right on my face. Maybe you’ll think that’s funny?”
Beatrice shook her head. “I’m sorry, Rosie. I know this ain’t my territory. I know I’m new and don’t have all the rules down straight. But I guess I’m used to dealin’ with leaders. You say the Gray Harlequin runs things? He’s the one I gotta see. ‘Cause I ain’t puttin’ on no red nose and sweatin’ blood for laughs. There has to be another way outta here.” She shrugged. “I’ll find it. I’m good at that.”
“Maybe you were before,” Rosie Rightly whispered.
Beatrice nudged her, even tried a wink. “Hey,” she said. “I brought myself along with me when I died, didn’t I? That’s the sum of somethin’.”
But Rosie Rightly would not be comforted.
Tex sniffed the air as they slipped beneath the portcullis. “Smells like bad eggs.”
“Sulfur,” the Flabberghast said absently. “And brimstone. So picturesque.”
Diodiance stood en pointe in her tennis shoes. Widened her nostrils. Nodded agreement. “Reminds me of our Rotten Egg War. Who won that one again?”
“Aunt Oolalune. But we got her back the next week at the Battle of the Baseball Diamond. Sent her howlin’ back to her side of town. Remember—”
Diodiance shushed him. Pointed. “What’re those?”
Granny Two-Shoes petted Sheepdog Sal. Balloons, she thought through her stroking hands. Bad balloons.
Seven sharp barks, staccato, conveyed the message to their comrades.
“Balloons?” was all Tex got out before the first one dove upon them.
“Flee!” cried the Flabberghast. “I will hold them off!”
Springing at the yawning purple maw that snapped with black piranha teeth, the Flabberghast raked its bulbous sides with his thin white hands. The balloon whipped around and pounced at his back, squeaking like a tricycle left too long out in the rain. Two more balloons joined it: one tiger-striped with the long neck of an ostrich, one with the face of a bear and the body of a snake.
Tex had turned out his pockets of rocks and pointy bullet casings and began to bang that artillery—pop-pop-whap!—right into the polychromatic fray. Beatrice used to say how she bet Tex’d been a Junior League pitcher back in the olden days. He couldn’t rightly know either way, but ever since the world ended, his aim had just improved.
Diodiance unstrapped the thornstick from the loop on her belt, and—BLAM! WHAP! POP!—laid about her. Even Granny Two-Shoes jumped perch, snatching the switchblade from its sheath to thrust it up into the air. WHAP! POP! KERBLOOEY! Sheepdog Sal rose to her hind legs, lunging and gnashing with far greater gusto than any measly thin-skinned balloon beast. Pop! Pop! Wheeeeeeeze! went the whistling things as they rocketed away, deflating as they died.
Suddenly the air was still again. Gray and still. The cobblestones of Chuckle City were littered with rainbow skins. Diodiance whooped out the Barka Gang’s war cry and chanted, “Tex! Tex! Our boy’s the best! Fastest arm in the whole Midwest!”
Leaping up and down Main Street in those great gazelle arcs she’d learned in ballet, Diodiance hollered, “Jeté! Jeté! Tour jeté!” and landed back in front of them with a mighty ululation. Tex received her clap on the back with a sweaty grin, picking up his stones and bullet casings and pocketing them again. He caught Granny’s eye, who returned his gaze with blazing blue solemnity, and said, “Thanks for the warning, Granny Two-Shoes.”
Granny tugged at his camo cutoffs, shrugged, smiled. Her baby teeth were white as Diodiance’s tyranny and fluoride toothpaste could make them, except for the iron gray one in the middle. Dead at the root, Beatrice had said. The Rubberbabies did that, that time they took her for their slave.
“Hey!” Diodiance stopped dancing. “Where’s the Flabberghast anyway?”
“Who cares?” Tex muttered.
Granny Two-Shoes pointed down a street, where the Flabberghast crouched near a tiny ambulance. Balloon skins hung all about his person, making motley of his peacock coat. He appeared to be prodding something with his long fingers, which the Barka Gang, joining him, saw to be the painted head of a small clown. The rest of its body was crushed to death under the ambulance.
“Are you hopin’ the head’ll pop off?” Tex stiffened to kick him. “Gettin’ hungry, are you?”
“This is not a body. Not really. And I do not eat souls. It is forbidden.”
The Tall One almost sounded regretful. He tugged off his lawn cravat and used it to scrub the dead clown’s small face. Off came the ash. Off came the paint. Off came the singed red nose, the curly wig. The child was pale and bald, with sunken eyes the same gray as the sky. As everything.
“Leukemia,” the Flabberghast said. “From long before the slaprash. Here, you see? The ravages of her treatment? She’s been in the Big Bah-Ha awhile. It must have been a harsh death to keep her here so long, and then when the Gray Harlequin came, she found herself fixed. Like the rest of them. Insects on his corkboard. Poor little butterfly.”
His voice had dropped like he was talking to himself, but the Barkas leaned in, paying close attention. “Those underground said the situation here was dire, but the others did not heed their voices. They mocked me when I paced before the gates and worried. They called my frowns the best jest yet. But I was right to come when I did—no matter how questionable my methods.”
Granny Two-Shoes knelt beside him and closed the clown’s gray eyes. The Flabberghast smiled at her softly, teeth sparkling.
“You are a good girl, Granny Two-Shoes,” he said. “Would that you were a Tall One, and I could stay your friend forever.”
“Seems to me,” Tex grunted, “the dead shouldn’t have to die twice. Not like this—no death rite, no shrine, no gang to go and sing her final lullaby. It just seems wrong.”
Diodiance scowled. “Queen B’d call this whole darn place ice cream.”
Granny looked up sharply. Sheepdog Sal barked twice. Diodiance corrected herself. “Sorry. I mean obscene.”
“Beatrice would be perfectly correct.”
The Flabberghast stood up. The Tall One had never seemed so tall. The Barkas each thought, but did not say aloud, that the sky of the Big Bah-Ha might crack if he jumped.
“What happens when a child dies?” he asked them.
“Well, Flabby, you go and eat ‘em.”
Diodiance jabbed Tex in the ribs. “Tex, that’s rude. He’s tryin’ to help us.”
“We’re here to help him, you mean!”
The Flabberghast calmed her with a wave of his white hand. “Peace, Miss Diodiance. That is indeed what we do. We eat the bones. But what manner of being, one might ask, eats what’s left when the bones are gone? What kind of carrion monster eats thehaeccitas? The thisness of being? The soul?” He paused, and into his pause came the rushing of a hundred wings. Behind his slender shoulders a shadow moved across the sky, too fast and too low for a cloud.
“Gacy Boys,” he noted. Then, “How are your scabs, children?”
“Still runny,” said Diodiance. “Startin’ to scratch some at the edges. Queen B says that means healin’s a-comin’ close up, makin’ you itch.”
The Flabberghast nodded. “There is still time. But not much.” He pointed to the dead clown on the ground. “The Gacy Boys will try to take this little soul away and bring it where it will be devoured and lost to all memory. Will you let this happen?”
“No!” cried Tex and Diodiance as one. Sheepdog Sal growled. Granny Two-Shoes unsheathed her switchblade again.
“Then stand,” urged the Flabberghast as gray wings beat around them. “Let us drive these boybirds back to the sky and pursue where they flee. This is the beginning of the end.”
In a field at the edge of Chuckle City, two massive elephants danced. Rampant, they stood on the great columns of their hind legs, their forelegs rearing to create the crest of an archway. Two opposite pairs of flat feet pressed together, without a seam in the stone to show where one elephant ended and the other began. Ears flared like frozen wings. Tails neither hung straight down nor jerked erect, but seemed caught in a jaunty swish. Their long trunks met, entwining skyward like a single great tree. The inner curves of their hulking bodies supported a mirror.
Had it lain flat, Beatrice might have mistaken the mirror for a lake. Warped and rippled, smoky with age and fissures, the vast glass reflected nothing that stood at any distance from it.
“Where is the Gray Harlequin?” asked Beatrice. “Where are the Gacy Boys?”
Rosie Rightly clung to her elbow. “I don’t know, Bee-Bee. He’s always near here. He lives just outside the arch.”
Involuntarily, Beatrice remembered someone else who lived just outside a great stone arch. She would have shuddered, but the dread inside her could not make her flesh creep or her hair stand on end. I’m not really flesh anymore, she thought. My hair is just the memory of my hair.
“I never liked it here,” Rosie said, teeth chattering.
Beatrice wanted to tell Rosie that she was not really cold; she would never be cold again, but she held her tongue. My memory of a tongue, she corrected herself.
“I can’t—I can’t go with you. I don’t want to use up my last chance. I’m not ready! I’m not happy yet.”
“Hush, it’s all right.” Beatrice spoke in the voice she’d used whenever Granny Two-Shoes woke her up with a midnight crying jag. Granny did not wake often, but when she did, it was bad. She cried like she was the last little girl left alive in the whole wide world. “It’s all right. I can go by myself.”
Leaving Rosie Rightly hunched on the low hill, hands clasped over the radiant wounds on her wrists, painted head bowed, Beatrice descended.
The incline had quickened her pace, or perhaps it was her body that seemed to grow lighter. The stone elephants were the first beautiful things Beatrice had seen in the Big Bah-Ha. Regal and welcoming, they seemed to smile. They made her stand straighter and remember one of Dad’s favorite words. Dignity. Right up to the mirror she walked, patting a huge hoof nail on her way, and stared into it.
At first she saw only a crack. It was small, a golden ribbon against the gray. Dancing light reached out from the crack and tickled her face like a breeze. It gladdened her eyes, made her skin feel a flush of true warmth. She wanted to put her mouth to the crack and suck the joy all the way into her. Put her ear to it and hear Dad’s voice again. Because he would be there, where the gold was. She knew he would.
But Beatrice thought, No. I must focus. I must look at myself. So she took a half step back.
And cried out at the dead thing she saw.
She was really, truly dead. Cold, small, lightless, breathless, heartless, quenched. Indistinguishable from anything else that had ever lived and died. There was nothing luminous about her except the ugly red handprint mantling her gray face like some hellish lobster. Beatrice scratched it. She scraped and clawed, but the handprint would not come off, and Beatrice fell to her knees and covered her eyes so that she would not have to bear herself, her dead self, her never-to-be-anything-else-ever-again self, one second longer.
A gentle hand touched her shoulder. It’s Dad, she thought, and flung herself into his arms. She pressed her face into his silver scales, sobbing without tears.
“Oh,” she said a moment later, edging away. “Sorry.”
“Do not be ashamed,” the creature answered. “I am here to succor you.”
“You’re the Gray Harlequin.”
Slim and supple as the Flabberghast, not quite as tall perhaps, but tall enough. Skin that glittered as if a million silver sequins overlapped him. A black velvet ribbon wrapped the upper part of his face like a bandit mask—only it had no slits for eyes.
Beatrice wasn’t sure he had eyes, although she felt certain he was watching her. A cloth of diaphanous saffron silk wound his body like a toga, clasped at his left shoulder by a glass bird that glowed from the white light inside it, and knotted into a saffron rose at his right hip. The rest billowed to his feet.
The crown upon his brow was part thorn, part berry, part leaf-bell-branch-bird’s-nest, part flower, part pale pink seashell. Wings grew from it, and antlers, and the soft ears of some small brown creature. This must be, then, what Rosie Rightly had called the August Crown. It proclaimed the Gray Harlequin Lord of the Big Bah-Ha. King of Clowns.
To see that crown was to feel its weight. Beatrice fell to her knees, thinking even as they scraped down, I never kneel. Not in defeat. Not to anyone. I pummeled Aunt Oolalune when she tried to make me. Why now?
“Do you come to ask a boon, little one?” The Gray Harlequin’s voice was warm as maple-flavored corn syrup on a cold December morning.
“I want to leave.” Beatrice spoke to the ground, hating herself for muttering. “I want to see my dad. I don’t want to stay here anymore.”
The Gray Harlequin made a sound between a cluck and a tsk. She risked a look up at him. He shook his glittering head to and fro.
“I am afraid,” said he, “that rules are rules. You looked into your own face, but you did not laugh. The best I can offer you now is a place here in Chuckle City. You might join the tramps under the Big Top. Ride the tigers. Learn to walk the wires.” He chuckled. A splatter of hot syrup. Bodies falling from a burning building.
“Or perhaps the Eleven Lovely Emilies will take you up, up, up into their webs and teach you how to spin. How to measure time by a red hourglass. How to eat what falls into your snares.” He stooped to cup her chin before she could jerk away. “Or you can blow balloons with the rustics, or immolate yourself with the grotesques. Although, from the look of you, I’d say you’ve seen enough burning.”
He laid his hand over the handprint on her face. She could feel the fit, how his fingers conformed to the slaprash’s shape exactly. This time, Beatrice did flinch, but he grasped her by the jaw and did not let her go.
“But you cannot leave my city, little Beatrice,” said the Gray Harlequin. Beatrice closed her eyes when he smiled. “And you cannot move forward through the mirror. Unless you want to take another look? Go on. Of all the children who have passed through the Big Bah-Ha, surely you are neither the most wretched, nor the saddest. Go on.” His ruby lips curled like vipers. “Look. And smile at what you see.”
It was a dare and a command. Releasing her jaw, he flung her forward. Beatrice dragged herself to her feet, pressed both fists to the glass, leaned in, looked. Her reflection sprang at her like a monster. She flung herself back, once again tearing at the slaprash on her face, trying to dig it from her flesh.
“Make it go away!”
“That,” smiled the Gray Harlequin, “I can do.”
So he pressed her once more to her knees, and she went, docile now. And he smeared white paint on her dull gray face, and painted a single blue tear beneath her right eye to represent all the tears she could no longer cry. From his saffron robes he drew a round red sponge attached to two white strings, and he placed the sponge over her nose and knotted the strings behind her head. He told her to look into the mirror a third time, now that he had made all things well.
Beatrice obeyed. Her reflection had grown bearable, although in wearing the red nose, she could no longer smell the warm gold wind pouring through the mirror’s cracked surface. She reached up to unknot the strings that held the nose affixed. The Gray Harlequin slapped her hand.
“Now, Beatrice. That’s no way for a clown to behave!”
Once more he began securing the strings behind her head, but before he had quite finished, the Gray Harlequin gave a loud shout and jumped back. The red nose tumbled from her face. Beatrice made only a half-hearted attempt to catch it, ashamed for being so relieved at its absence.
Above her, the Gray Harlequin hissed, shaking out his hand like it had been stung.
A sharpened shell casing bounced off Beatrice’s foot. She began to smile. Then the sky opened.
Overhead, thirty-three ravens exploded into being. Dropping to the ground around the Gray Harlequin so quickly they drew from the air a thunderclap, they threw back their gray feathers and became young men. Hangman’s hoods were thrust back, revealing ivory eyes and ebony teeth and coxcombs that writhed like Medusa’s snakes. Instead of clothes, their bodies were wrapped like mummies in gaffer’s tape. One wore half of a pair of handcuffs like a bracelet. Another, a length of heavy chain for a belt. Their throats were as radiant a red as Beatrice’s nose, red as the wounds on Rosie Rightly’s wrists.
“Well?” asked the Gray Harlequin. “Where is my meat and drink? In all of Chuckle City, did not one of my little subjects relinquish their last hope?”
The Gacy Boys spoke in a ragged chorus of whispers and whistles. Their voices ran together. Beatrice could only pick out fragments.
“A nice, fresh one, sire—a grotesque from the tenements, but…”
“Three heartbeats, with weapons. Rocks. Knives. Sticks—”
“One, tarted like a clown, but far too tall—”
“A dog, sire, with terrible teeth—”
“A dog?” Beatrice pushed past the line of Gacy Boys, would have marched right to Chuckle City to see for herself, but the Gray Harlequin shoved her to the ground.
“Stay where you are!” he growled.
“Sire,” said a Gacy Boy, “they were right behind us.”
Beatrice, choking on a mouthful of dust, tried to raise her head. But the Gray Harlequin had stepped upon it. She could only turn it to one side. Beyond the forest of Gacy Boy legs, several familiar pairs of feet moved toward her.
First: white tennies, worn with more grace than a pair of satin ballet slippers. Second: scuffed and scarred combat boots, boys’ size eight. Third: a pair of pink patent leather Mary Janes smaller than a Snickers bar. Fourth: four brown paws, dusty and dear. Fifth and last: two banana-yellow boats.
“It’s my Barkas,” Beatrice whispered. “But how did…?”
“Oh, hallo, Harlequin!” cried the Flabberghast. “So good to behold your blindfold again! A few of us wondered where you’d gone when the hills opened up and the world was ours. How is your hand? Necessity demanded the damage; we hope you will forgive. By the way, Young Texas, you have a most excellent arm!”
“Thanks, Flabby. You in there somewhere, Queen B?”
Beatrice spat dust to bellow, “Down here! Tex! Di! Granny! Sal!”
The Gray Harlequin’s velvet-shod foot pressed hard upon her skull. Her mouth filled. The dust of the Big Bah-Ha tasted like ash.
“Had I known, my friend,” said the Gray Harlequin, “that you intended to visit, I would have prepared a welcoming party. Ceremonies, parades, cannonades…” His rancor ground Beatrice beneath his heel.
Snorting, the Flabberghast noted, “Nothing in this blasted heath remembers how to throw a party, Harlequin, least of all you. You brought the Big Bah-Ha to the brink of ruin. Cannons could only improve the place.”
The Gray Harlequin grinned most redly. “Perhaps. But who is left to care? Only the dead come here, and those are all mere children. They don’t know any better. They barely know their own names. The wretched brats needed a keeper. Who better to wear the August Crown than myself?”
The Flabberghast rocked in his yellow shoes. “Let us set aside for the nonce a debate regarding the befitting resettlement of souls, the governance of the deadlands, and the corruption of the August Crown. Let us instead, dear Harlequin, turn to the more important question of aesthetics. The plain truth is, Harlequin, you have made the Big Bah-Ha far too ugly. And I cannot abide ugliness.”
“You live in a cardboard box,” sighed the Gray Harlequin. The tension in his toes did not ease. Beatrice thought that if he pressed any harder, her skull would explode.
“It only looks like a cardboard box,” the Flabberghast retorted. “Anyone who enters knows it for a palace. But this place?” He shook his head. “Last I visited the Big Bah-Ha, the skies were endless and sapphirine. Where now only thin grooves mark the dust, there once flowed seven mighty rivers. Manticores, glatisants, silver-bearded unicorns abounded, offering songs, riddles, rides to the young newcomers, who looked upon them with awe and wonder. Green was the grass, sweet were the flowers, and everything smelled of something even better blooming in the distance. Such wild, clear music rang from dryad lips and satyr horns. Such dancing gadabouts were held, such glad feasts. Chuckle City, your degraded city, was a city of silken tents, not tenements, each flowing canopy woven of silver silk spun anew every morning by the Eleven Lovely Emilies. And how lovely they were, the Keepers of the Hourglass, the Guardians of the Gate. How lovely they were, but see what they have become!”
The ring of Gacy Boys hooted and cooed uneasily. Perhaps they remembered such a time, remembered too how they had forgotten it. But the Gray Harlequin only sneered.
“They are all still here, Flabberghast—the monsters of whom you so fondly reminisce. Glatisants, manticores, centaurs, tra-la, tra-la, et cetera, they are all to be found in my petting zoos. As for your Eleven Emilies—it is a stretch, is it not, to call them lovely?—they work for me now. In exchange for food. I do not think there is a prettier sight than an Emily feeding on what falls from the wires to her web.”
“What is the food?” asked the Flabberghast. Beatrice thought she heard a thread of nervousness and longing running through his words. “This is the Big Bah-Ha. It is the last and lowest of the deadlands. There is nothing to eat here but the souls of those who died too young.”
“Exactly so,” hissed the Gray Harlequin. “Can’t you smell them, Flabberghast? So sweet, so rare, so plump with potential. So much finer than the coarse stuff of carbon.”
“Souls!” That one word was almost a wail. Beatrice squirmed beneath the Gray Harlequin’s crushing shoe. “What need have you of souls, when all the bones of a dead world are ours for the digging?”
The Gray Harlequin’s laughter was like a cougar sharpening its claws on a hollow tree. “Digging in the dirt like worms, like maggots, like old blind moles under Hillside Cemetery, where we voluntarily entered a debasing confinement until the last human falls. The whole world is not ours for the eating, not for years yet, my Flabberghast, not unless you’ve sped along the deaths of all those little ones running wild in their packs. Have you, Flabberghast? You alone among us had the freedom to do so. You alone of the Tall Ones were allowed passage beyond the gates. Our great ambassador to those little human meat lumps. You, who were once our jester! Our fool!”
“No one objected at the time.” The Flabberghast had smoothed his voice again. If the Gray Harlequin was syrup, the Flabberghast was a rich, tasty grease of butter, and Beatrice, squashed flat between their voices, was beginning to feel like the pancake.
Then she heard Tex shout, “Hey, Flabby, is that snotbum another of all y’all Tall Ones? Thought you said only kids were allowed in here.”
Diodiance asked, “How’d he even get in?”
At Granny’s behest, Sheepdog Sal barked, and at the sound, the others of the Barka gang hushed, remembering how they’d gotten in. They fingered the half-healed holes in their wrists. Somehow they couldn’t see the Gray Harlequin asking a living child politely for his blood. He’d just take it and paint his red doorway on any old skin. He wouldn’t even have bothered bringing a living child in with him, for he’d never planned on coming back out. The Flabberghast spoke into their awful silence.
“Our prison term, if that is what you wish to call it, Harlequin, is only a matter of a few short years. The slaprash lingers. When the last human remnant comes of age…”
Here he stopped, but Beatrice knew how the sentence would end. They all did, back home.
“Breath starts to rattle
Like dice in a cup
And the slaprash’ll getcha
Even for the youngest among them, even for Granny Two-Shoes, it was only a matter of time. Till they grew up and died dead, slapped red. Beatrice closed her eyes against the pain of it, the futility, the hopelessness of such a future. What was the point?
And, as if summoned, Granny’s face appeared between one of the Gacy Boys’ sticklike legs. She waved at Beatrice and smiled. Her one gray tooth was like a keyhole amid the bright glare of the whiter ones.
Granny Two-Shoes slid something across the ashy ground. Beatrice crept one arm out from her side, slowly, so slowly, hoping she could snatch the slingshot without the Gray Harlequin noticing. But he was entirely caught up in his indignation, she saw. Just like Aunt Oolalune back in the land of the living. So marvelously self-absorbed and easy to distract.
That’s what the Flabberghast is, Beatrice realized. A distraction. One I’m meant to use.
Still the Gray Harlequin argued. “A few years, you say? A decade, perhaps, if we’re lucky. A decade of gnawing flavorless femurs and sucking stale marrow in some moldy old Midwestern cemetery.” He laughed bitterly. “Do you think I—I, who witnessed the Black Death and the birth of Pantalone—wish to spend my hard-won perpetuity scrabbling for sustenance and listening to your infernal jokes, Flabberghast, all day and all night, until the stars burn out, when here, here in this place where there are no stars, I can be God and King together, presiding over an eternal feast?”
He reached a long arm to stroke the feral head of a Gacy Boy. “Here, among my little friends?” he asked, more softly. “Who require my guidance, welcome my tutelage? I gave them wings to fly. They deliver my messages. They capture monsters for my entertainment. They hunt the deadlands for the souls that are my meat and drink. They are very useful, and so very grateful to be of use. To have a little power, where before they had none.”
The Flabberghast hesitated before replying, but Beatrice watched the rocking of his yellow shoes come to a standstill.
Be ready, she thought. Be wary. Be watchful. Take your best chance.
“You guide them nowhere but over their own dusty traces time and again. You offer them a little glamour, and they mistake it for power. You have turned the children’s only door, their rightful door, into a distorted mirror where they must see themselves marked with murder, disease, accident, neglect, lack, with no hope of anything better. You lock them in perpetual despair until their souls wither, and then you devour their souls. No God or King, you, Harlequin. Jailer. Tormenter. Executioner.”
The air filled with whistles and whispers as the Gacy Boys turned to the Gray Harlequin.
“You said it was a magic mirror.”
“You said there was no way out.”
“You said we must look at ourselves.”
“At our own dead faces.”
“Into our own dead eyes.”
“Acknowledge what was done to us.”
“You said,” keened the smallest Gacy Boy, whose cap and bells sat a bit awry, “if I could laugh, I would see my mother. But I couldn’t look—I couldn’t look at that again! I’ve done everything you said…” He bent his head and sobbed. His ivory eyes spurted tears like crude oil.
The others broke formation to comfort him, handcuffs dangling, chains clinking. They drifted off together in desolate clumps, leaving the Gray Harlequin exposed. He turned in sudden fury to the Flabberghast, his foot slipping from Beatrice’s skull.
“You’ve upset them!”
The Flabberghast shrugged.
“Tell me,” said the Gray Harlequin, “you who’ve traveled all this way. Did you even wait until she died to peel off her skin and nail it to your wall?”
Beatrice breathed without breath. She remembered the flensing tool. How the Flabberghast had started with her foot. Her left foot. Just as the last blood oozed from her pores and the last of her convulsions ceased.
She gripped the slingshot Granny Two-Shoes had slid her. Swiped from the dirt the bullet casing that had spared her the red nose. Wriggled onto her back. Slid out of range of that crushing foot. And took her shot.
She couldn’t throw like Tex, but she was still the best shot in Hillside.
Knocked askew by the flying missile, the August Crown went hurtling from the Gray Harlequin’s head. It spun, it glistened, the wings that grew from it seemed to flap and fly. Bald as a vulture, the Gray Harlequin dove for it, but the Flabberghast caught him by the folds of his saffron robe and ripped him away from his goal.
In thew and sinew, the Gray Harlequin was stronger than the Flabberghast, who, though taller, was thinner, too, almost frail. Perhaps old bones were not as nourishing as young souls. When the Gray Harlequin fisted the lapels of the Flabberghast’s red brocade vest, he lifted him out of his shoes. His ruby mouth yawned open. Black gums studded with diamond fangs shone with saliva. A black tongue flicked out, split like a snake’s.
“How passing sweet will a living Tall One taste, after all these years of eating death? Do you remember the old days, Flabberghast, when we had only each other to devour under the hills? How thin we grew then. But we always had enough, you and I.”
The Flabberghast said a word that Beatrice did not know. She thought it was not a human word.
In answer, the Gray Harlequin slammed him into the mirror. Not once, not twice, not thrice, but over and over again, and each time the Flabberghast’s body against the glass made a sound like lightning striking cathedral bells.
Beatrice turned to the other members of her Barka Gang, who watched the scene with wide, frightened eyes. Could the Flabberghast fall? Fail? Would he be ate up, and they in their turn? Beatrice snapped her fingers. Their focus shifted. Their faces cleared.
“We got this, Barkas,” she whispered with a cheerful grin. “Won’t cost us more sweat than can make a salt lick. Remember the Battle of the Baseball Diamond? How we brung Big Johnny low?”
“Like yesterday, Queen B!” Diodiance said happily.
“Go on, then!”
Diodiance and Tex dashed forward to grasp hands. Granny Two-Shoes slung herself from Sal’s back into the stirrup they made of their fingers. They heaved her into the air, and she flew like a Gacy Boy, high and higher, until she landed on the Gray Harlequin’s saffron-swathed shoulders. Her switchblade was ready. A snick. A plunge. A sideswipe. Black blood gushed from his throat in geysers, spraying the Flabberghast and the silver mirror behind him.
As it had before, upon Beatrice’s flayed skin, the black bloodstain with its tiny white lights began to spread in all directions. There came a mighty crack. And the Flabberghast, against a rain of stained shards, laughed as the Gray Harlequin crumpled to the ground. Before he hit, Granny Two-Shoes jumped clear of him. Beatrice embraced the little girl out of the air, and spun her three times, and cradled her close like she used to do every night, when she and Granny were the only Barkas left awake.
“You’re the world’s last wonder, Granny Two-Shoes!” Beatrice murmured into her ear. “I wish you’d live forever.”
Granny Two-Shoes buried her head in Beatrice’s shoulder and let her switchblade fall.
Diodiance and Tex, still holding hands, leapt about, whooping the Barka victory song. The Flabberghast shook the last of the glass splinters from the cuffs of his sleeves. He crouched over the bald corpse of the Gray Harlequin and said in a low voice, “You were a bad clown. You couldn’t make a jackal laugh.”
With that, he stripped the black velvet ribbon from the Gray Harlequin’s face, dug one long finger deep into the single central socket there, lifted out a round white thing like a great, blind eyeball, and popped it into his mouth. A shudder shook him, as though the pleasure of it were more than he could bear.
Twelve of the Gacy Boys left the Big Bah-Ha forever that day. The smallest went first, the golden wind from the newly opened Elephant Gate burning away the chains and gaffer’s tape, the cap and bells, the hangman’s hood, until he was simply dressed in playclothes, his face clean and calm and unafraid. He cried out, “Oh! I see her! I see her!” and ran ahead of the rest, laughing.
The other boys looked past the gate with longing, but some dread gripped them still. They turned their backs on the great elephants, and trudged away into the low hills of the Big Bah-Ha.
“Don’t they want outta here?” asked Diodiance.
“Not ready yet,” said Beatrice. “Maybe they still see a mirror. Or think they don’t deserve to laugh. I dunno. But give ‘em time. They got all the time in forever.”
When one way or another the Gacy Boys were gone, a few children crept down the hill from Chuckle City. Rosie Rightly led three rustics, four grotesques, and a tramp riding an old white tiger from the Big Top. Pacing them, a contingent of eleven beautiful women, whose four arms and four legs apiece were clear like crystal and flute-thin. Their red hair blew around them like the flames of Chuckle City. The red hourglasses of their eyes shone.
“Those’re the Emilies,” Beatrice explained to the Barka Gang. “They guard the Elephant Gate.”
Granny Two-Shoes, still hanging tightly onto Beatrice’s neck, strained to see. Beatrice swung her onto her shoulders for a better view. Rosie Rightly came bounding up to them.
“Hi, Bee-Bee! Bee-Bee! Hi! Hello! Is it true? The Gray Harlequin is dead?”
“Done to death by Granny here.” Beatrice patted Granny Two-Shoes’s knee. Rosie Rightly took one of Granny’s pink Mary Janes and kissed the toe of it.
“Thank you, girlington!” she breathed. “Oh, thanks ever so. He made me bring him here, you see. Back at the end of days. No one came home that night. The other houses in my neighborhood were all on fire, and the Tall Ones marched through town toward Hillside Cemetery, wearing white lights on their shoulders. My house was dark, and I was hiding, but the Gray Harlequin knocked on my front door anyway. He saw me through the screen and came right in. He tore my wrists on his teeth and painted me with my own blood. Then he bit his mouth and bled on me from the wound, and walked right through my skin to the deadlands, taking my soul along with him.”
She showed her glowing wounds. Before Beatrice could say anything—and what could she say but “I’m sorry?” Too paltry and lacking by half—a wind from the Elephant Gate rushed upon them, bathing Rosie Rightly in light, turning her wounds to gold.
“Oh!” Rosie Rightly clapped delighted hands to her mouth and bounced. “Look! Look! Look! Big brother, and little brother, and baby brother, too! And Papa, and Mama, and puppy, and kitty, and Grandma, and Cousin Albert, and…” Her laughter pealed out. She bounced right past the huge stone elephants and into somewhere else.
There, too, went the rustics, the grotesques, the tramp, and the tiger. But the Eleven Lovely Emilies stayed. They settled near the gate and set to spinning. Something silver and flowing. Something fine, of silk.
Beatrice looked toward Chuckle City, frowning. “There should be more. There were hundreds of clowns—kids—back there.”
“It never happens all at once,” the Flabberghast told her. All this time, he had been sitting on the ground quietly chewing bits of the Gray Harlequin until the corpse was riddled. For the first time since dying, Beatrice was glad she didn’t have a stomach.
“Oh,” he exclaimed. “Look at this! I had all but forgotten!”
Bending at the waist, he reached out and swiped a glinting object from the gray dust. It was the August Crown. In his hands it twinkled and fluttered, shimmered and rang as if asking him a question.
The Flabberghast laughed in answer and told the chiming crown, “Me? Oh, no. You are quite mistaken if you think that.” He shook his curly orange head and popped another of the Gray Harlequin’s fingers into his mouth. He glanced up at Beatrice with his strange black eyes, but aimed his chatter at the crown.
“Despite present evidence to the contrary,” he said around his mouthful, “I really do prefer bones. I like my cardboard hut out front of the gravy yard. I even find it enjoyable to keep up with the kiddy gangs, and learn their rhymes, and bear witness to their final wars. And, no offense”—Beatrice wondered who he thought would take offense; the August Crown wasn’t the world’s liveliest conversationalist—”I just hate babysitting. Really, this entire venture stretched even my illustrious ambassadorial tolerance to its absolute limit, and this with the Barka Gang being doubtless the least vexing specimens of their species. I chalk that up to the benefits of strong leadership, you know. Nothing like discipline, and cleverness, and kindness in a leader to create harmonious cohesion in the underlings.”
He eyed Beatrice. He twirled the August Crown in his long white hands.
Startled, she took a step backward. “I don’t think…”
But the Flabberghast spun up from the ground like a motley tornado, a bone sticking out of his mouth like a cigarette, his long, oddly jointed hands extended, and plopped the August Crown upon her head. Granny Two-Shoes patted it and laughed. The sound was rare and small. Barely a breath.
“There!” cried the Flabberghast. “Three cheers for Beatrice, Queen of the Big Bah-Ha!”
No one cheered, but Diodiance did stretch to her tiptoes to ding one of the August Crown’s bells.
“Ha! Look atcha, Queen B! Ain’t you just like one of those ladygods your Dad used to whopper on about? Not Durga. One of the others. Those deadland queens. Remember all those stories you told us, B? ‘Bout Hel and Ereshkigoogle and Pursopoly?”
“Persephone,” Beatrice murmured. Then, with longing, “Dad.”
She could feel him right behind her, so near, just beyond the stone elephants and the warm golden splash of light. She wanted to go to him, go right now, tell him how she’d lived, how she’d died, everything that had happened since, ask him what came next, and if they’d ever have to part ways again.
Beatrice sighed, and turned away from the Elephant Gate. “All right. I’ll wear your August Crown.”
The Flabberghast’s voice was gentle. “It is not mine, Beatrice. It is yours—very simply, because it needs you. And it is only for a little while, after all.”
“I know.” Beatrice laughed a little. “Ten years, right? Give or take.”
Granny Two-Shoes climbed down from her shoulders and into her arms again, and Beatrice clasped her close and looked over at Tex and Diodiance. “What do you think, Barkas dear? Figure I can sort out this here Big Bah-Ha in ten years or so?”
Tex blew a raspberry. “B, you’ll have it spick-and-span by the time I get slapped up. That’s what? Four years? Three if my growth spurt comes young. Whaddya think, Di?”
Diodiance shrugged. “Two years tops, she’s whupped this place to shape. After that, you ‘n’ me, Tex, we’ll get here in no time flat. But I’m thinking, Queen B, we’d best not pass the Elephant Gate ourselves till Granny Two-Shoes joins us. No fair tryin’ to make us laugh for joy before then. We all go in together or not at all.”
“I will wait,” Beatrice promised. “We will all wait.”
The Flabberghast took Granny Two-Shoes’ hand in his and squinted to inspect her wrist. “Hark, friends. Our time draws to an end. Your scabs are almost completely formed.”
Granny Two-Shoes tugged her hand free and pressed it to her heart. Yes, she noticed. It was squeezing. Had been feeling strained for some time. Her ears made a noise like being born.
She remembered. Granny Two-Shoes remembered everything.
Beatrice helped her up onto Sheepdog Sal’s back and tousled her tangled hair. “See you later, kiddo. In every pinch, just ask yourself, ‘what would Durga do?’ Keep that knife sharp. Serve those Rubberbabies ding-danged tarnation in a soup tureen whenever you can.”
Granny Two-Shoes nodded. Looked down. Blinked and blinked at Sal’s flopsy ears so as not to cry. It was not yet night. She only cried at night.
Beatrice tossed her slingshot to Tex. “Yours, my man.”
“Thanks, Beatrice,” he mumbled. His tears fell into the gray dust, hot and living. The water welled up, sparkled, began to form a stream.
The first of seven rivers, Beatrice thought.
She unwound a blue ribbon from her hair and dropped it into Diodiance’s outstretched palm. Diodiance wrapped it twice around her arm and tied it off with her teeth. Her lips trembled.
Drip. Drip. Splash.
“Quickly now, children,” said the Flabberghast. “Not through the arch, but through the elephant’s legs. The left elephant, mind. The one on the right takes you to a far different place.” He winked a long black eye and lifted his slender wrist. “Ah, speaking of which, before you go…Might you spare me those last precious dewdrops of your wet blood? That I may myself get back through, you understand. The doors to the deadlands are tricky and likely to lock behind one.”
Tex hesitated, but Diodiance whacked him on the arm. Granny Two-Shoes acquiesced before either of them, anointing him with the sticky remnant of her wound. Tex and Diodiance followed suit, then slung their arms around each other and disappeared between the stone legs. Sheepdog Sal licked Beatrice’s hand and bounded away with Granny Two-Shoes clinging tightly to her fur. Lastly, the Flabberghast shouldered what was left of the Gray Harlequin like a sack of presents. He turned his stagger into a bow for Beatrice.
“I apologize,” he said, “for flensing your skin before you were quite dead all the way through, then stretching it upon my wall. But I needed a doorway. And your skin was so very, very clear.”
Bent low like that, he came face-to-face with her. In the blackness of his eyes, stars.
Beatrice asked softly, “We’ll never know, will we? Whatever it is you are.”
“I,” he answered, laughing, “am the Flabberghast!”
Then off he danced with that weight on his back, awkward as tumbleweed. Only Beatrice noticed he did not leave through the left set of stone legs. He’d taken the ones on the right. Went elsewhere. Where the Tall Ones go.
Resolutely, Beatrice turned her back again on the Elephant Gate. A golden wind warmed her neck. A rent in the gray sky showed a gleam of blue.
Eleven Lovely Emilies smiled down at her.