THERE was a circus at the convention center. The Highland Circus. Marlin Kelley didn’t see the appeal. Ever since he saw It with Tim Curry, Kel had been afraid of clowns. But he wasn’t a kid anymore, and he didn’t hide from clowns. That wasn’t what had him sweating.
Kel took his seat amongst the crowd and waited for the lights to dim.
The acrobats weren’t so bad, he decided part of the way into the show. It was entertaining to watch them sail through the air. And the music wasn’t too loud or too garish. The little boy seated behind him kicked the back of Kel’s chair. Not a particularly patient or forgiving man, he whipped around to glare daggers at the boy.
The kid was so engrossed with the colorful acrobats that he failed to notice the angry man in his mid-thirties directly ahead of him. He continued kicking Kel’s chair. He was about to cuss the boy out when two red eyes stopped him.
It was the woman, sitting up in the nosebleed section. Her red eyes were trained on Kel. Even in the dark, he could see her skin which resembled craggy charcoal, her writhing black hair, and her impossible grin made up of shark’s teeth. Two leathery wings were folded against her back.
Kel ducked and turned forward again to watch the circus performers.
She was the reason he was here. She was the one that whispered the name in Kel’s ear along with the command: “Confess.”
The rest of the performance seemed to fly by. Kel couldn’t enjoy it. He had two options. Either he confessed his sins like the demon woman wanted, or he didn’t and she haunted him for the foreseeable future. Neither option ended well for him, and the time for choosing drew nearer with every act that passed.
When the show ended, some of the performers met the audience out in the lobby. Kel scanned them for the man whose face he had memorized from the Highland Circus’ website. The man whose name a demon woman hissed in Kel’s ear late at night. He searched for dark blonde hair and piercing blue eyes. Just as he thought that he might have to get creative and dodge security backstage, Kel spotted him.
He was off in a corner talking to one of his colleagues, an older man with strikingly similar features. The older man saw Kel approaching and motioned for the younger to look behind him. For a split second, Kel saw someone who was not so different from himself. Hurt, angry, pushed to the fringes of society. Then he put his mask on and became just another performer greeting a fan. It was impressive. Even Kel’s mask wasn’t that solid.
“Are you Reuben Skinner?” he asked just to be sure.
“Yes, sir,” the younger man said with a smile. “Did you enjoy the show?”
“Um, yeah…” Kel glanced over his shoulder. Amidst the throng of people, he saw the red eyes and sharp grin flash between the heads and shoulders of those milling about in the lobby. Sweat trickled down the nape of his neck, and he muscled onward. “There’s something I need to tell you.”
Reuben Skinner raised an eyebrow, and Kel knew he had about sixty seconds before the man told him to get lost.
Kel leaned in and said in a barely audible whisper, “I killed a hooker in Vegas.” He waited a beat to see what Skinner’s reaction would be. After a moment, the young man rolled his eyes and snorted.
“Yeah, okay.” He then adopted a serious expression with a hint of mockery. “Sir, are you aware that you’re not allowed to drink alcohol in this building? Although, kudos for sneaking it past security.”
Kel wiped the sweat from his forehead. There was more he had to say before Skinner dismissed him. “And then there was an old man in Cleveland.” Skinner looked to the man next to him.
“Seriously, can you get security over here?”
“And there was a family in Coon Falls after that!” Kel was shaking so badly that it took a few seconds for him to notice the young man was frozen. “Please, I’ve told you. Now make her go away!” He looked over his shoulder again. She was still there, but this time she was closer. Her huge bat wings jutted out ending in pointed tips before sloping down. People casually walked around them. How could no one else see her?
“What did you say?” Skinner’s mask had fallen away entirely. His blue eyes were cold and barren.
“That demon woman,” Kel sputtered. “She won’t leave me alone!”
“No, no.” Skinner shook his head. He twirled his finger and said, “The part right before that.”
Kel strained to reorder his thoughts. He was so focused on completing his confession that it went against the grain to backtrack. “I killed a family in Coon Falls?”
Skinner smiled. “That’s what I thought you said.” Then his fist smashed into Kel’s nose. He staggered back and fell to the floor.
A clamor rose up around them. Startled gasps and confused inquiries were bandied about. Skinner shook his hand, wincing.
“Well, don’t just stand there,” he said. “Somebody call the police.” He looked down on Kel with an expression equal parts disgust and exasperation. “It’s a sad day when I’m the voice of reason.”
From the corner of his eye, Kel saw the withered skin of the demon woman’s legs, all angles and shadows. The ends of her wings dragged on the floor. Her writhing hair came into view as she bent her upper body sideways. Head pointed at the floor, the demon woman stared at him. Her grin was somehow more menacing upside-down. A hard pit formed in Kel’s stomach as he realized that, though he’d confessed his sins to Reuben Skinner just like she told him to do, the demon woman was not going anywhere.