COULROPHOBIA • by Neil MacDonald

“We’re going on a clown hunt. Wanna come, Sarah?” Spinks gave me a sly look, leaned his bicycle against the park bench, and slid a serrated combat blade from his wrist sheath. He was like that, always at the forefront of mischief. Probably, that’s why he was the leader. Even in class, Spinks smelled of danger, and it mesmerised me.

He grinned. “It’ll be a bit of fun.” He smoothed the stalks of grown-up stubble on his cheeks.

“Yeah,” Robbie said, “show them smilers they can’t mess with us.”

The knife winked cruel in the sunlight. Knives weren’t my idea of fun and I played for time. “Killer clowns, are they even real? Two weeks ago I’d never heard of them. Now there are sightings all over the country.”

Spinks puffed himself up like a cobra. “Right. I saw one on Wednesday in the High Street, driving a white van.”

He shifted his weight. “Come on, Sarah.” Refusing was hard.

Sarah Good sees the hard faces, her neighbours’ lips drawn back from teeth, as she is brought into the Salem court. Abigail and Elizabeth rock and moan. A murmur blows through the crowd like a wind – the moaning is a sure sign that Sarah is a witch. Two months earlier, Elizabeth had complained of fever, barked like a dog, and contorted her body in pain. Then Abigail followed suit. Invisible agents bit and pinched both children. Investigations by the good folk of Salem led to Sarah, along with the servant Tituba and Sarah Osborne.

People were running scared. Some woman tweeted that she wouldn’t be going jogging anymore in case she met clowns. Coulrophobia, it’s called — the fear of clowns. I didn’t know there was such a disease until my twitter feed went crazy over clowns attacking people. Seems I have coulrophobia. You can never tell what’s really going on behind the mask. Is it Ronald McDonald, or is it the Joker? Clowns can get away with murder.

“There,” Robbie shouted, pointing across the park, “I see one there, under the trees.”

I didn’t want there to be a clown in the grove. All I cared about was being with Spinks.

“Come on, let’s get him,” Spinks said.

“Are you even sure it’s a him? Maybe she’s just an ordinary clown.” I said. “Or just a kid in Halloween costume. We should leave her alone. I’m not even sure anybody’s there — it could be a trick of the light.”

Spinks spat his contempt. “Don’t be such a wuss, Sarah, that’s a killer clown. With a knife, I’ll bet.” The light danced from his blade into my eyes.

A shard of snapped blade found in Abigail’s clothing is damning evidence. She claims Sarah Good stabbed her while she had a fit. Sarah lashes her head from side to side, but sees only knowing outrage in the courtroom. If only she’d been nicer to her neighbours, less sharp-tongued, they might have liked her more. As it is, she has few friends. She seeks a saviour. And, praise the Lord, one appears. A young man says the blade fragment is his, discarded the day before when his knife broke. He testifies that Abigail had seen this happen. The hilt of his knife is placed against the fragment and they match. Sarah clutches at hope, even though it cuts her palms. She is found guilty of witchcraft anyway and hanged at Gallows Hill in Salem on 19 July, 1692. Nineteen other witches are executed too.

“Maybe she’s just an ordinary clown?” Robbie echoed my words, mocking me.

Spinks’s eyes narrowed. “What are you? A clown lover?”

I’m no clown lover. Not me — I hate the things. Dad took me to the circus when I was little, only once, and I hid quivering against his chest when the smilers came on. The breath caught in my throat, and I was nauseous. Clowns scare me more than climate change or the idea of Mum dying.

So no clown was going to come between Spinks and me. I’d given up too much to get him. Every girl wants to be Spinks’ girl. They envied me, though they didn’t like me, but I knew you could fall, just like that. When Spinks is bored with something, he cuts it out like a bad bit from an apple.

If you were a wise woman, you gave Spinks what he wanted. It didn’t do to be sharp-tongued with him. Slinking close, I pressed my leg against his and turned, so my breast softly touched his arm.

Neil MacDonald has published short stories in Structo, Gold Dust, and other places. His historical fantasy novel A Prize of Sovereigns has been serialised by an online publisher. Drawing on experiences working in international aid, he has also published six non-fiction books. He was born in Scotland, raised in Jamaica, and has lived and worked in England, the US and South Africa. He now lives in a cottage in Surrey, England together with his wife and the obligatory cat and dog.

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