TRAIL OF SMALL CLOWNS by Caleb Bethea

TRAIL OF SMALL CLOWNS by Caleb Bethea

I got another clown kit on my way home from the hospital. It was a long shift, but something about the familiar weight of it in my hands pushed the sleeplessness into somewhere deep inside my body where I couldn’t possibly see it. With the kit in my passenger seat, the ride home felt shorter than usual. I didn’t even have to blink my eyes back open–the promise of a new face having this effect. Off the clock was going great.

My face came together in the bathroom mirror. Red triangles under both eyes and a purple smile that threatened to swallow them both. 

Some of my best work yet. I’d been getting pretty good at it when she was still at work and I’d come off of a night shift. We hadn’t spoken about it. Made sure to shower it off before she even clocked out. This was my thing to do at home after work. I got to make the face I wanted. 

Given her line of work, I didn’t think she’d understand what it was like needing something to cover over your crawling skin. The paint so bright and garish, like it could burn away the tension that was trying so hard to come out of my body. She’d always ask me about my shift, but I could tell by the look on her face that she only wanted the smoothed-over answers. To be fair to her, I don’t think even I completely understood what I’d been building toward at the time. 

It didn’t click until I was sewing a crash survivor’s face back into one piece. What I hadn’t been able to shake for years in the operating room was how I felt like I was doing something wrong. Not a mistake though. My work was seamless. She’d heal just fine and go back to her own job; no one would even have to know her flesh had opened up in one thundering instant. But it felt wrong, like I was needlessly covering over something beautiful. And it really was beautiful. There’s not a single person in my field who would disagree that our insides are a wonder, that it’s a shame they stay so hidden for so much of our lives. I took that scalpel home. 

It shone a little in the bathroom light as I pulled it out of the scrubs hanging from the towel rack. I took one last look in the mirror at my makeup. It was my best work yet. It had just been a trial, though, building to this. I reached the blade to the crown of my head and cut down the center of my face in one long stride. A clown’s expression cut in two. I kept the slice going all the way down to my navel, took the scalpel out to take a breather. 

As a surgeon, I shouldn’t have been surprised by how easily the blade cut through me. What surprised me was how easily my entire skin peeled off my body. One try. One piece. The thrill was raw, glistening.

And I felt sick. Not because it wasn’t handsome—it was. But because I felt this way. It was the same rush the clown makeup had given me, but it throbbed with an even louder pulse. 

I folded all the skin into loose sections and placed it in the sink, with the clown-paint face pointed up—not wanting the practice run to be a complete waste. Again, I looked in the mirror and saw my body, almost in its meant-to-be form, looking back. But, without my skin, the need for sleep seeped out of me. I heard my liver slapping onto the tile floor. My pancreas half falling out of me, hanging all the way down into the sink with my old skin. I grabbed the makeup as quickly as my slick fingers could. Even fighting for consciousness, I knew my truest, best work yet was just minutes ahead of me. 

Her scream was sharp enough to break my sleep. The sheets clung to my drying insides as I processed the source of her fear. I’d done it as a way to ease her into my revelation. Build up to it, just like I’d done with myself. She’d found my painted organs, the ones that couldn’t stay inside of me, set up as a trail of small clowns leading to the door of our room. Each one with a purple mouth, a pair of eyes with red triangles—all pointing in the same direction. 

With a quick look in our darkened window, I saw that the makeup had stayed in place. Painting who I really was on the inside, my new outside. And somehow, when she opened the door, I was ready. Ready to talk about my shift. 

 


Caleb Bethea is a writer from the Southeast. They earned an MFA at UofSC and now work as an editor. But, the best of their time is spent with their wife and three goblins by the ocean. You can read their work in HAD, Maudlin House, hex, Twin Pies, autofocus, and elsewhere. They tweet at @caleb_bethea_

Art by Jaime Goh

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