I have to pick up new makeup, Bill thought as he patted his cheek with the aged sponge. He looked in the mirror and saw a red circle underneath his right eye and a blue circle underneath his left eye. His own, sad, face that he saw in the mirror every day was juxtaposed by a picture of a smiling woman and a small boy grinning at the camera, standing right next to his small tabletop mirror. On the top right of the picture frame sat a small black ribbon that was knotted from a black balloon.
He had long given up on putting full clown makeup on before going to work. That Stephen King guy had turned what was once a sight of joy for children into a horrific nightmare. In fact, the last time he had shown up to a birthday party in his full makeup, children had started screaming frantically.
It was a warm summer’s day and Bill had gotten ready in his car. He walked into the garden, where the parents of the birthday boy had prepared a little stage for him in a corner, surrounded by the presents the guests had brought. They had discussed over the phone that Bill was to surprise everyone by walking into the garden and calling the little kids to the stage where he would blow up balloons from the small cannister that he was hiding under the puffy costume.
But it hadn’t come to that stage of the party. When Bill walked into the garden, pearls of sweat were already starting to run down his face, taking some of the makeup with them, bead by bead. As the children saw him, something unexpected happened. A very young boy in green shorts started screaming for his mommy.
This set off a chain reaction in the twenty or so very small children that attended the party. Everyone stared at Bill and one after another either started crying or hiding. Everyone except the birthday boy. The very chubby boy, wearing light trousers, a black T-shirt, and a party hat, started running from the buffet table, where he was chewing down on a large piece of cake, towards the corner that was surrounded by presents. He was frantically screaming and crying.
Bill, blindsided by the reaction, approached the kid in order to calm him down. The little boy saw him and rather than calming down, began to screech like an owl whose nest was about to be raided by even bigger birds. He picked up present after present and threw it at the approaching man whose clown makeup was starting to drip from his face by then.
Bill caught and set down carefully a lot of the boxes the boy threw at him, but some missed him entirely, and Bill could hear breaking plastic from inside one of these presents. When the boy was out of presents to throw and his voice collapsed after continuously screaming throughout the whole ordeal, he simply gave up.
As Bill nearly reached the boy, who just stood there, stiff like a deer caught in the headlights, a single point of dark grey appeared on the boy’s trousers. The dot turned into a stream and soon streaks of grey ran down his pants. The entire congregation of children and parents were frozen in place, looking at the small boy’s crotch.
As the spell was broken by the small boy starting to cry once more, a woman that Bill supposed to be the boy’s mother ran over to the child and picked him up, not caring about pressing the wet front side of the boy against her beautiful blue summer dress.
A man whose shirt matched the color of the woman’s dress, most likely the boy’s father, stuffed his salary into Bill’s hands and asked him to leave. Despite making fast money, it had saddened and quite frankly scared him what sort of reaction he could have on some children.
His own son, Phillip, on the other hand, had loved his clown makeup and balloon animals. He even had one of them in the car with him when he died.
That day, Stella, his ex-wife, and her new lover, had picked Phillip up from his weekend at Bill’s place. They shared the custody of their five-year-old son, with Bill seeing him every other weekend.
This schedule meant Bill couldn’t entirely rely on the weekend birthday party gigs but had to work weekdays in the busy shopping street, knotting balloons into animal shapes for children who approached him. Sometimes the parents gave him a bit of money, and sometimes they wouldn’t. Bill only expected to be paid if parents approached and asked him to do a specific animal for their child.
On the rainy Sunday afternoon, his ex-wife and the prick she was dating came to pick Phillip up in the prick’s expensive Mercedes. Bill and Phillip had gone to the zoo earlier that day. In the hour they had to spare between coming home and Phillip being picked up, they talked about the trip, and when Bill asked his son which animal he had liked the most, Bill went into the adjacent room, coming back with a giraffe made from balloons.
Phillip’s eyes lit up, and after cuddling with the balloon animal for a bit, the doorbell rang. Bill opened the door, and his ex and the new guy were standing there. He handed them the bag with Phillip’s things.
Bill thought he could smell a faint trace of alcohol on the prick. Still, he was relieved as he saw Stella getting into the driver’s seat before they drove off, Phillip waving the balloon giraffe at him.
This was the last time Bill had seen his son.
Two hours later, a police car showed up at his house. Bill had been getting ready for an evening show. He mainly did children’s birthdays, but he was sometimes booked for bachelor and bachelorette parties too. Instead of knotting only animals, he was sometimes asked to knot more absurd and immature shapes, which he only agreed to because drunk people tipped well. They, despite also being somewhat put at unease by clowns, seemed to love his makeup and therefore he exclusively put it on for these kinds of parties.
As he opened the door, he had been halfway done putting on his makeup. A smiling clown’s face covered the right side of his face. He thought that Phillip might have forgotten something or that his mother forgot to tell him something important.
“Sir, there has been an accident,” said the taller of the two officers as soon as Bill opened the door.
“Is my son okay?” asked Bill, not even pretending to care about the other people in the car.
“No one in the car survived,” replied the smaller officer solemnly. “I know this is hard to hear, but can you come with us and identify the bodies?”
The rest of the day had been a blur for Bill. The only thing he really remembered was looking in the mirror of the police car on the way to the station. There, an absurd idea had occurred to him, and he had to restrain himself from laughing out loud. In that mirror, he saw one half of his face covered in red and white makeup that was supposed to convey a smiling, happy face. He would’ve painted the other to be a sad, crying face, but as he looked into that mirror, he thought that life had done the makeup for him that day.
After identifying the two larger and the one small body that had been mangled during the crash, Bill was dropped off at his home.
“If you need help with anything, please give me a call,” the taller police officer said to the man whose clown’s makeup had been washed away by tears by then.
“Thank you,” Bill said and closed the door behind him.
In an attempt to distract himself, he fired up his laptop. He saw the local newspaper publish an online article about the crash. In it, it said that a male had been driving the car when they had slid off the wet road and into a nearby tree. They must’ve switched seats after all, Bill thought, hands closing to fists and crumpling the paper.
His rage was soon extinguished by sorrow and the frustrated feeling that the police officer had lied to him. Not everyone in the car had died, he thought as he saw the picture that accompanied the article. On it, a lonely balloon giraffe looked out of the rear window of the otherwise utterly mangled car. He had cried the entire night after seeing this, wondering how such a delicate thing like a balloon could survive a crash like that but his own flesh and blood, his son, couldn’t.
The day of his son’s funeral was the worst day of his life. Despite pleas from his family and his ex-wife’s family, Bill had put on his full clown makeup, which weirdly juxtaposed his black suit. He carried Phillip’s urn—there was no way to present a body as mangled as his had been in a casket—and when the priest lowered his urn into the grave, Bill took out a small canister and a few balloons. He blew them up and knotted them into the shape of a tiger, Phillip’s favorite animal. He didn’t notice the uncomfortable stares of the attendees while all of this was happening.
“So you don’t feel alone down there,” he said as he dropped the tiger into his son’s grave.
After the funeral, Bill looked into the mirror of the small venue where they gathered for coffee and cake to celebrate his ex-wife’s and son’s lives. There, he saw a tear-streaked, clownish grimace that made him understand how people could be afraid of clowns.
Three months had passed since the accident, and Bill had spent every day since in the city streets, knotting balloons into animal shapes for children. He was making good money, great even, but he didn’t care about the money.
He didn’t know why he was doing it, actually. With the alimony obligations gone, he could’ve returned to his weekend schedule and been financially secure. Nevertheless, no matter if a rainy, sunny, or a freezing day, he spent his days from seven in the morning to seven in the evening, standing on the streets of Trier, knotting balloons into animal shapes.
Deep down, he knew why he was doing it. If not in his waking life, his dreams showed him why he did it.
Not every night, but every other, he would dream about standing in his usual spot, knotting away at the balloons. Then, a small boy would approach him. Sometimes he had brown hair, sometimes he had red hair. Sometimes his eyes were green, and sometimes they were blue. Despite the boy never exactly looking like his son, he always knew it was Phillip.
Bill continued getting up early in the morning and going to bed late in the evening for a chance to make his dream come true. He was still entertaining the idea that maybe someone had made a mistake and that his ex and the prick had swapped his son for another kid at a gas station or that the coroner had made a mistake and he had buried someone else’s kid.
Bill had just set up his gas cylinder and other equipment when a group of foreign tourists approached him. The three children, not speaking his language, tried to imitate the animals they wanted.
“Wuff,” the first kid said, and his eyes lit up as Bill knotted a brown Labrador from his balloons.
“Miau.” The second purred and played, grooming his hand with his mouth. The black and white cat Bill knotted was ripped out of his hands greedily as the kid’s eyes lit up with joy.
“And you?” Bill looked at the last child expectantly.
“Grrrrrr.” The child growled and raised his hands to mimic claws.
“A Lion,” his father said in an Asian accent.
Bill paused for a second. He had stopped doing lions after his son’s funeral. He decided to keep it that way and took out some black balloons and knotted them into the shape of a cat, finishing it with menacingly red eyes.
The child’s face lit up, and he seemed happy about the jealous looks from his brothers.
“Jaguar,” Bill said, and the three kids stormed off, playing with the balloons.
The father, a man in an expensive-looking suit, handed Bill a fifty note, and he and his wife followed their kids.
“Thank you,” Bill said and put the money, which had become meaningless paper to him, in his pocket.
It was a sunny day, and as the sun wandered across the sky, constantly changing how the busy shopping street was illuminated. Bill knotted hundreds of animals, making a lot of money. Always secretly on the lookout for his son to appear out of nowhere, he didn’t even realize that he had made over five hundred euros in a single day.
He only realized how exhausted he was five minutes before seven. As he was about to close his shop for the night, a dirty and lonely-looking child approached him alone. His hair was the exact maroon shape of his son’s, and his eyes matched him too. He was a bit older than Phillip, but the resemblance was uncanny.
“Can I get a chameleon?” the boy said in a hardly audible tone.
“Why a chameleon?” Bill asked the boy, not trying to change his mind, only curious.
The child looked at his feet and said something inaudible.
“What was that?” Bill crouched down to hear the boy.
“Because they are good at hiding,” the boy repeated slightly louder.
Bill laughed and started knotting the chameleon. His laugh vanished from his face as he saw the boy’s expression turn sour as a man and a woman rounded the corner.
They were arguing.
“We don’t have money for the child going to summer camp,” the man shouted at the woman, slurring as if he had too much drink or two.
“We would if you wouldn’t drink and smoke it all away,” the woman replied.
As Bill handed the boy the chameleon, the sound of the man’s slap echoed through the now empty shopping street. Bill wrenched his eyes from the child that looked so much like his Phillip and saw the man standing over the woman holding her left cheek in pain, hands raised to strike again.
“Hey, stop it!” Bill shouted, and the man froze.
He looked at Bill and forgot that his wife even existed. He started sprinting towards him and his child, shouting.
“We don’t have money for that. Give it back,” he yelled.
When Bill felt a sensation on his leg, he looked down. The child had moved behind him and had taken hold of his left leg, hiding from his father.
The furious man reached them and started berating Bill and his son, telling the young child to return the balloon.
“Let him keep it,” Bill said.
“I won’t do shit. You can’t just prey on little children and then expect their parents to pay for it.” The man, reeking of cheap liquor, snatched at his son’s arm and tried pulling him off Bill’s leg.
As the man was tugging on his son, and therefore on Bill, Bill’s mind filled with pure anger and rage. In his mind, he was beating up that lowlife piece of shit that was hitting his wife and most likely also hitting his son.
In his mind, he felt his hands moving. Up. Down. Left. Right. Uppercut. He had been the junior boxing champion of his city and was sure that he could beat that drunken piece of shit to smithereens if he wanted to. And…
“What is that?” the drunk asked and ripped Bill out of his dreams of beating the man up.
Bill’s hatred was replaced with sheer amazement when he looked down at his hands. Instead of throwing punches, they had unconsciously knotted balloons. An orange body with a white rim around its head. Tiny whiskers protruded from its balloon face. The lion he had knotted was nothing like the lion he had dropped into Phillip’s grave. The one he had made for Phillip had looked friendly and was meant to protect. This one seemed savagely voracious and ready to kill.
“This is for you. Free of charge. As is the Chameleon,” Bill said in a dazed tone, feeling as if someone else had spoken through his mouth.
The drunk took the balloon lion perplexedly, and then his wife reached the three. She held her hand towards the child, and the boy reluctantly took it, letting go of Bill’s leg.
“Thank you,” the woman said in a warm tone, the redness of the slap still pulsating on her cheek.
Bill was stunned by how much the woman looked like Stella had when they had first fallen in love so many years ago. He was too stunned to speak, and the woman and the man walked off, the small child looking back at Bill once or twice.
“Hey, boy, what’s your name?” Bill shouted after them.
“Phillip. And you?” The boy yelled back, still unsettled but thankful.
“Bill. Nice to meet you.” Bill barely managed to keep his trembling out of his voice. Bill dropped to his knees as the family rounded the corner, sobbing. He packed up his things, went home, and wept the entire evening and night.
After counting the previous day’s income, Bill decided to spend the next day at home. The previous day’s events still weighed heavily on his mind. He thought about life, God, and reincarnation as he dropped his spoon into his cornflakes. He had just seen today’s big article.
“Man savagely attacked by an unknown beast. Rumors of mountain lion attack floating around. See pages two and three,” was written at the top of the newspaper.
Bill’s heart filled with dread as he opened the newspaper to pages two and three. The article read as follows:
Trier. Man brutally mauled in his home. A thirty-eight-year-old father and husband from Trier was attacked in his home tonight. The wife says that her husband got out of bed at some point in the night because he heard purring noises from his office. He supposedly walked in there, and soon big cat noises, accompanied by the man’s screams, filled the small flat in the western district of the city. The woman claims that the noises suddenly stopped, and when she entered the office, she found the mangled body of her husband lying on the floor.
Instead of continuing to read the article, Bill’s eyes were drawn to the crime scene photo that accompanied the article. It showed the messy office of the man, presumably after all the blood had been cleaned. Deep claw scratches could be seen on the wooden panels of the floor and the bookcases. Deep tooth imprints also showed on a corner of the desk.
But what made Bill audibly gasp was a small figure sitting on a shelf next to the window. A balloon figure of a lion was sitting there, overlooking the room.
Bill thought he could see small trickles of blood on the edges of the balloon animal’s mouth, and tears of sorrow and joy ran down his cheeks.
Marius Reuter is an aspiring author from Germany. The love of literature has completely captivated him, and not a single day is spent without inhaling the sweet and alluring scents that a work of fiction radiates. Besides reading and producing literature, his days are well spent with his favorite human being, his wife.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Balloon Animals”:
This is author Marius Reuter’s first appearance in Fabula Argentea, and we suspect it won’t be his last. He does a superb job of painting his main character by slowly revealing the aspects of Bill’s life through the story and not info-dumping on the reader in the beginning. This makes the story much stronger by pulling the reader along. There’s good writing and a couple of surprises packed into this piece. We also felt that the supernatural aspect of the ending also made this a great piece for our October issue.