When you made the worst mistake of your life, did you know it at the time? Or not until later? I don’t think my wife could have known what would happen when she hired clowns for my daughter’s birthday party, but that doesn’t make it any easier to bear.

“Did you ever see a clown frown?” He smiles his big, sloppy smile, makeup running down his face. All the kids shout “No!”

“No I never seen a clown down,” she sings, her long floppy shoes slapping morosely as she slumps along.

“Because I’ve got my clown crown?” He tugs at his frizzy red afro, wincing as if in pain. All the kids laugh.

“It’s because he’s at the fairground!” She squeezes a horn, barely heard over the shouting children.

The two clowns linked arms, prancing around each other in a maniacal waltz which wouldn’t have looked out of place around a bubbling cauldron in the woods.

“I’m sorry, but who the hell are these guys?” I asked.

“Shhh they got great reviews.” My wife jabbed me in the ribs with her elbow. “Look at Emily — I’ve never seen her laugh so hard.”

“Are you sure she’s not crying? I’d be crying if those things came stomping over here. Great, now what are they doing with her?”

My wife shrugged, shaking with suppressed laughter as the clowns led our daughter onto a wooden stool in front of the audience.

“Have you seen that clown around?” the female clown chants to Emily in a sing-song voice. The seven year old grins and points at the male clown who is sneaking behind her on tiptoes. She’s about to answer, but the female clown cuts her off.

“No there aren’t any clowns found.” She mimes binoculars with her hands, looking everywhere but behind. Emily covers her eyes and plays along, giggling as all the kids point and scream at the sneaking clown.

“He’ll never make a clown sound,” she continues, hushing the kids down. Meanwhile the sneaking clown has picked up a bucket.

“He better not dump that on her —” I mumble, prompting another elbow in the ribs.

“When he makes that frown drown.” The bucket dumps over Emily — but it isn’t water. A wave of glitter drifts through the air like snow, completely obscuring our daughter in swirling eddies of reflected light.

The laughter is replaced by shouts of awe — the glitter clears, and the wooden stool is empty. Our daughter is nowhere to be seen.

“Thank you all! Happy birthday and goodbye!” The two clowns clasp hands and take a bow.

My wife is clapping and laughing so hard that there are tears in her eyes.

“Where’d she go?” I ask, dumbfounded.

“Where’d who go?” My wife, still wiping her eyes.

“Emily. Our daughter. She was there and then —”

“God — lighten up, will you? Just enjoy the party.”

I didn’t think I was being unreasonable. I chased after the departing clowns who were stopping every few steps to wave and bow again. They were even more unsettling up close — smeared makeup unable to hide their blotched uneven skin. It looked almost like they’d painted directly over open sores in some places.

I tried to play it cool, reaching out to shake the male clown’s hand. “Hey great show. The kids had a lot of fun. What do I owe you?”

“We have a lot of fun with the kids too,” he replied, bowing formally. “No payment necessary.”

“Seriously? You guys were here for like three hours.”

He just smiled, turning to follow his wife toward their van parked around the side of the house. I hastened to keep up.

“So how’d you do the vanishing trick? Where is Emily, anyway?”

He puts his finger to his lips, winking conspiratorially. “Bad business, giving away trade secrets.”

“It’s bad business not accepting money. Where’s my daughter?”

He was walking faster now. Almost running. His partner was already in the van, and he was about to climb in too. I grabbed him by the shoulder, spinning him around to face me.

“I asked you where my daughter went.” Loud this time. I was past being polite. These guys freaked me out and I was ready to be done with them.

“Are you still bothering those poor clowns? Come back to the party!” My wife shouted from behind.

The clown pulled away from me while I was distracted, jumping into the driver’s seat. Door handle — locked. I pounded on the window. He just smiled and waved, and he wasn’t the only one. Emily was waving from the backseat.

The van was rolling. Shit — I ran alongside, beating on the flank of the moving car with my open palm.

“Let her out! Hey! Hey!”

“Leave them alone!” my wife shouts.

“They’ve got Emily! Stop the van!”

“She’ll turn up sooner or later. Stop worrying so much.”

I couldn’t keep up with the van once it pulled onto the street. Everything felt surreal. My wife’s glazed eyes followed the van for a moment, then turning slowly as though sleepwalking, she returned to the party.

I don’t know how they seemed to have hypnotized my wife, but it wasn’t going to work on me. I leap into my own car and tear into the street, catching sight of them before they’d even left my block. The weirdest thing was that they weren’t even trying to get away. Puttering along at 25 MPH, they slowed the van to wave at passing children on the street. The female clown leaned halfway out the window to touch their hair, blowing her horn as she did.

They weren’t taking Emily by force. They weren’t trying to escape. My wife didn’t think anything was wrong. I was beginning to think I was making an ass of myself, letting my own discomfort about clowns ruin everyone else’s good time. Maybe this was a special adventure my wife had planned for Emily’s birthday. I’d left in such a hurry that I didn’t have my phone to check though, so I just kept following at a respectful distance.

The van parked on the street beside a foreclosed house. Rotten timbers on the verge of collapse, a yard choked with weeds and piles of animal shit, broken windows and a sagging roof — it looked like no-one has lived here in a long time. So why were they taking my daughter inside? No — it was more like my daughter was leading them, holding their hands as she pulled them along toward the house.

I parked a block away, not advancing until the door closed behind them. I really wished I’d brought a weapon, but I compromised by wrapping my coat around a large shard of broken class. The smell was nauseating — I don’t know what animal desecrated the yard, but it looked more like human shit than anything that came out of a dog. Up close I could hear them singing again, and though it carried the same tune as their other song, I couldn’t recognize the language.

“Is it going to hurt?” my daughter’s sweet voice rang clear.

“Did you ever see a clown frown?”

“No I never seen a clown frown,” she replied cheerfully in the sing-song voice. I was peering through the windows, but all I could see was a trashed living room and kitchen. They must have gone deeper into the house, so I opened the door and let myself in.

“That’s because we aren’t allowed,” cooed the woman, “and neither are you. Chin up, girl. That’s right, keep smiling. Nothing can hurt you as long as you keep smiling.”

The shrill, piercing scream numbed my eardrums. I charged forward, bursting straight through the rotten door into the bathroom where the sound was coming from. My daughter was suspended in the air, wrists tied to the shower-curtain bar. The female clown stood in the shower behind her, holding her up, while the male clown raised a blade which seemed to be carved from sharpened bone.

I didn’t slow down until my shard of jagged glass met the terminal resistance of his spine. Emily was screaming louder than ever, thrashing against her bonds — the female clown had her own knife now and was shouting something in the strange language. I started climbing over the slumped body of the one I’d stabbed, but somehow he was moving again, lurching back and forth to block my path. Each incremental movement perfectly synchronized with the unfathomable chanting, almost like the words were moving him in a grotesque, rhythmic dance.

Emily’s scream reached its apex before cutting suddenly short, replaced only by a wet, wheezing gurgle. I jerked the glass out of the clown’s back with my bare hands, driving it deep into his throat, shocked and horrified as he continued to dance to the rhythm of the words. Again and again, stabbing and shoving, only to be pushed back once more, the horrid song rising to a frantic pitch as my daughter’s last whimpers trailed into agonizing silence.

By the time I got past the male clown, he looked like he’d just lost nine consecutive rounds against a butcher: tattered flesh hanging in loose folds around his still dancing body. My hands were raw from gripping the glass, but I didn’t let that stop me from driving it into the chest of the remaining clown. She stopped chanting abruptly, her partner’s body collapsing onto the floor in the same instant as though two dolls were cut by the same thread. She was still smiling when the light bled from her eyes, and the laughter which exploded from her mouth was even worse than the chanting. She didn’t stop laughing, no matter how many times I drove the bone-knife into her lifeless corpse.

Even harder to bear was Emily’s laughter which joined in unison, ringing clear and innocent despite her cleanly slit throat. I unfastened her from the bar and held her to me, but it was too late. Her heart was still. Her breath didn’t come. She didn’t move — not except for the giggling laughter which continued to wrack her stiffening frame. She’d been smiling when she died, and even death couldn’t steal that from her.

I couldn’t go home after that. Even if my hypnotized wife believed what happened, I couldn’t hold her and tell her everything would be okay when I knew nothing would ever be the same again. I wasn’t going home without Emily. I didn’t have a home without Emily — but maybe I could still bring her back.

I wasn’t crying as I cleaned the bone-knife, marveling at its razor edge.

It was more of a grim smile as I caked on the thick make-up from the van.

I even chuckled while putting on the big, rubbery shoes.

Because whatever else these clowns were, they’d learned the power that a child’s sacrifice can provide. And if all it took was a few sacrifices to make my daughter dance again too?

Well that was something to really smile about.

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