by DS Levy

Two weeks before Christmas, Martha entered the busy Glennhaven Mall and was approached by a short, white-faced clown. He was wearing a light blue pantsuit and a paisley tie. In one hand he gripped a wilted red helium balloon. His shoes were over-sized Busters, his hat an old straw Fedora. Everything about him was campy and over-the-top, and Martha wanted to get the hell away from him. She thought she could shrug him off in Sears, which she had to visit anyway to exchange a pair of slippers.

The clown, however, followed her into the store. She zigzagged through tight aisles racked with clothes but couldn’t lose him. He stuck to her like a wet tongue on a cold pole. At one point Martha looked over her shoulder and saw a grin creeping into his red jellybean-shaped lips. Frazzled, she got all turned around and found herself standing in the tools department instead of shoes.

This was not the first time a clown had aped and dogged Martha. One time she had been in a mall in Indianapolis when a clown had begun to shadow her, saying to her husband in a squeaky voice, ‘Is she with you? Is she with you?’ Her husband had thought it hilarious. But he hadn’t known she’d been having an affair, so technically the joke was on him. That clown had followed her the whole length of the mall before she had turned on her heels and told him to fuck off. He’d mocked surprise, swishing his white-gloved hand back and forth like windshield wipers, though he did back off.

Another time—this, when she was just a child—a clown at the circus jumped off a stallion in front of where Martha and her parents sat. He bent down to shake her hand and smelled of horse manure and, like her father, 90 proof moonshine. Martha had cried so much, her parents finally took her home.

And yet another time she had gone to a costume party and one of her old boyfriends had dressed up like a clown and stood in a corner of the apartment nursing gin and tonics, casting her menacing looks. And there was that time, my God she was embarrassed to remember this, when she and James, her second husband, the one who had been laughing at her in the mall, had tried to add a little spice to their lovemaking. He’d dressed up with a clown’s nose.

All in all, Martha had had enough interactions with clowns to know she didn’t find anything funny about them.

But this clown in Sears was especially clever. He was practically breathing down her neck—even with a knitted scarf she could feel his hot breath—and just as she was about to reach for her pepper spray in her Tory Burch Ella Mini tote, a midwinter breeze brushed over her. AC from the overhead vents? Not likely. A door left open? But there was no doorway in the tools department.

This cool breeze came from an inside source. It was Martha’s heart letting go. Yesterday, as she’d been sipping her second cup of coffee, going over her Christmas list, trying to figure out what to buy everyone and knowing the slippers she’d bought her sister were wrong, all wrong, and needed to be returned for something better, she had felt her blood pressure spike. It had happened once before during an especially stressful time, so she was not worried. The holidays were stressful, of course, but she’d muddle through.

As she started to fall, she clutched one of the tool racks. Hammers, wrenches, sockets and bits all crashed to the floor, clattering and clanging like warped bells on Christmas morn. When she looked up, there kneeling over her was Groucho the Clown, who wanted her to know she’d been chosen to receive a special $100 shopping gift from the mall. Groucho, with his painted on happy-happy face, was unable to turn his stiff smile into a frown. He stared at Martha, who was slumped on the floor surrounded by shiny tools. He touched the side of her neck with his gloved hand—the one not holding the wilted helium balloon—then stood up and shouted for the department manager to call 911. But this being the most hectic shopping day of the year, the department manager had plenty of things on his mind.

DS Levy’s work has previously been published in Little Fiction, the Alaska Quarterly Review, Columbia, South Dakota Review, Brevity, The Pinch, and others. Her collection of flash fiction, A Binary Heart, is published by Finishing Line Press.