Cooperton was the only child in the neighborhood Karina did not like. When Sammy played with any of the other children, she felt just fine, but with Cooperton, it was different. As a mother, she could tell—one of those sudden instincts, a full-body knowledge she couldn’t quite articulate—even though his behavior was technically above reproach whenever she was there to witness it. Still, something was off. There was nothing of the traditional bully about him. He was small and wiry, prone to sly glances, dark tufts of hair springing up at odd angles from his head. He had large ears—also sharp ears, Karina had noted with discomfort. He was apt to repeat bits of gossip gleaned from the overheard conversations of adults with a seeming reckless innocence. When she was nearby, he was overly conciliatory to Sammy, overly courteous to her. He had a studied politeness she distrusted. She’d seen the way he maneuvered amongst the other children like a tiny consigliere, how he spoke quietly and they listened, faces inscrutable.
Sometimes Karina felt sorry for Cooperton, encumbered as he was with an unwieldy name, a name one ought to give a town, not a child. His parents were shy, furtive people, both of them software engineers who worked long hours, entrusting Cooperton to the it-takes-a-village goodwill of neighborhood oversight. He was not a beautiful boy either, not like her Sammy, with his expressive face and big, soulful eyes and heartbreaking crooked smile. Sammy, who seemed to love and trust everyone in a way she feared would prove disastrous. Karina loved Sammy back so fiercely that it actually hurt, a pain delicious in its intensity, like a sore muscle she couldn’t stop flexing. That was part of the problem, also. She loved her own son too much. It was the kind of love that was dangerous.
“You’re babying him,” Robert complained. Robert was her ex-husband, Sammy’s dad. No one would ever accuse Robert of babying anything. He taught civics at the local high school, which everyone understood to be a pretext to coach football. Robert’s t-shirts were tight in the biceps and belly, and all his students called him Coach. Even as he softened in the middle, he conveyed discipline, strength, relentlessness.
“Sammy’s sensitive,” Karina always responded. There was too much emphasis on toughening boys, she thought, too much of the residual whiff of retrograde masculinity. She hated the thought of her Sammy on a football field, cowering as coaches barked orders. Besides, weren’t the demarcations of gender supposed to be fluid now, every role unfixed and malleable, ready to be donned or doffed as if from a box of dress-up hats? Sammy would be fine now, here, in this more enlightened age.
Robert shook his head whenever she said this. It was hard for Karina to imagine ever having lived with him, ever having been married. He had a brute animal smell, large and equine. Muscles and sweat—a smell she’d once found appealing, like everything else about Robert, until the day rolled around when she didn’t. Now it was unfathomable that Robert had ever been part of her life. Motherhood had brought out her monomaniacal streak, her knack for celibacy.
On Tuesdays, she took Sammy to his sensory integration therapy. A nice lady named Miss Beth helped Sammy explore textures and sounds. They used a swing specifically designed to train his vestibular system. Each activity was carefully designed, part of a systematic progression. Karina didn’t mind these appointments though Robert, of course, remained skeptical of the entire premise. Sensory Processing Disorder? Trend du jour. A fancy name for picky, easily over-stimulated children. He’d said as much to their pediatrician, who had nodded sympathetically. A constellation of symptoms, yes, merely a descriptive term, but perhaps apt in this case?
Karina had nodded, affirming the diagnosis. It fit Sammy, who vomited whenever he heard lawnmowers or leaf blowers, who only wore clothing with all the tags cut out, who’d only eaten certain acceptable foods for years now, avoiding anything too slimy or pungent. Karina had previously understood all this to be mere childhood quirk. Weren’t all children picky eaters? And didn’t the sound of a leaf blower make everyone want to vomit, once you thought about it? It really was a viscerally unpleasant noise.
But the pediatrician’s diagnosis seemed plausible, at least to her, while Robert maintained that Sammy had just been coddled, his fragility indulged. All he needed was a little toughening up, not special therapy. Maybe Sammy was fragile, Karina would admit, but he possessed an artist’s soul—one pure membrane of feeling. He’d shown such aptitude for painting already. The art teacher at the elementary school had pulled her aside on parents’ night.
“I’ve never seen work quite like his,” she’d said, her voice filled with genuine wonder, gesturing to one of Sammy’s paintings pinned to the wall, which was, anyone would have to admit, entrancing. Sammy’s work was like the outsider art Karina had seen—wonderful and wild and filled with hints of naïve, otherworldly wisdom. “He’s a very talented boy,” the art teacher had added, nodding sagely as if to bestow her fairy godmother blessing. Karina smiled at her—her name was Janet, and she was new enough that Karina didn’t know her well, but she liked her for the talent she saw in Sammy. Sammy was special: a truth Karina had already known.
“Do you like working with Miss Beth?” she asked Sammy, catching his face in the rearview mirror on their drive to the appointment.
His eyes were closed. He often closed his eyes when riding in the car, a way of blocking out the garish too-much streaming past. Karina felt she understood. The onslaught of noisy colors, the giant-font shopping center marquees—it really was too much. Yet everybody else, herself included, had somehow calibrated themselves to adapt. Dull but functional creatures. This was what normalcy demanded. Only Sammy, her remarkable, sensitive Sammy, experienced everything at full intensity.
“I like her,” he said softly. “She’s nice.”
Karina nodded. No one could say she wasn’t doing her utmost as a mother. They’d go to therapy for years if necessary, but still she’d accommodate him at home. Not to do so would be torture. And besides, her accommodations were small: muffling the sounds of household chores, avoiding vacuuming, playing low-volume classical music whenever she ate apples because he could not tolerate the gruesome crunch.
“Can I go outside with Cooperton later?” Sammy asked, his eyes still closed. They were pulling into the small office building where Miss Beth’s office was. He carried earplugs that he sometimes used as well, which Miss Beth said was okay for now—a reasonable allowance until he advanced.
“We’ll see,” Karina said, the universal parental dodge for a denial. “It may be too close to dinner time.” She paused, eyeing Sammy again in the mirror. “Why do you like Cooperton so much?” she asked.
Sammy’s eyes opened and he met her gaze in the mirror before speaking.
“He’s very interesting,” he said. “He tells me things no one else will.”
Karina’s best work-friend, Trish, a popular fourth-grade teacher with the exaggerated smile and tinkling voice of a cartoon elf, first mentioned the clowns. They were sitting together at a mandatory all-faculty meeting.
“Has Sammy brought them up yet?” Trish asked before the meeting began. “There’s even a term for it. Coulrophobia.”
Karina shook her head. As the school librarian, she was often late to hear things. In life, it seemed, she was often late to hear things. This was why she admired Trish, so sure-footed, so able to gauge the tenor of a room. Trish, effortless Trish, always made Karina very aware of how hard she herself was working.
“No, but I saw something online. Somewhere else. A viral rumor,” she responded.
“Well, the rumor’s here now,” Trish whispered. “I heard the kids talking at recess. How one of them saw a clown standing over near that wooded area by Haw’s Creek. And over by the Bi-Lo. All over town, apparently.”
“Sammy hasn’t said anything.”
“He will,” Trish said. “They’re all talking.”
Trish nodded with an authority Karina envied. The meeting began, cutting off any further conversation, and Karina experienced a flash of retrospective understanding.
The day before had been beautiful, a sunny yet autumnal afternoon, and she’d insisted on going outside with Sammy. She’d sat at the small pavilion near the playground, pretending to read a book so Sammy didn’t feel like she was hovering while he played with Cooperton.
Cooperton never actually played on the play structure like a normal child. Instead, Karina had noticed, he was always digging at some obscure pocket of dirt, arranging a set of sticks like spikes into the ground, or hacking at the tender trunk of a young tree. If he was near the play structure itself, he was doing his best to dismantle it in some way, peeling off the bright petal of a painted flower or bashing at a bolt on the slide.
She let her eyes follow the boys from behind her sunglasses, behind the prop of her book, and listened to snatches of their conversation. For the most part, it seemed, Cooperton did the talking.
“I saw them this time,” Cooperton was telling Sammy. “Two of them, down where the land’s been cleared by the creek. They were watching us.”
Deer. She had assumed they’d been talking about deer. Their neighborhood, after all, was plagued with them, particularly in the fall when they sprang out like startled ghosts from the darkness, heavy bodies thudding heedlessly against windshields. Now it occurred to her that she’d been a fool. Not deer. Cooperton had not been talking about deer at all.
“Watching and waiting,” Sammy said. His voice was more somber than it should have been, but she’d dismissed this at the time. He was a serious child, a worrier.
“Watching and waiting, then ARGH!” And here, Cooperton had clapped his hands, bellowing so loudly that even Karina had startled. He doubled over with terrible laughter.
She rose to her feet, restraining herself from running to Sammy, scooping him up in her arms. He looked wan. She swallowed, on the verge of issuing some sharp remonstrance to Cooperton. But he preempted her, quiet now, flawless as always, and perfectly correct.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Melner,” Cooperton said meekly, straightening to meet her gaze with only the slightest hint of a smirk. “I’m sorry, Sammy. I forget.”
A note from the school principal regarding the clown rumors went out to parents by the end of the week. Karina had to admit that it was a measured and reasonable response: the principal reassured parents that, should any actual clowns be sighted in the vicinity of the school grounds, the proper authorities would be notified. Pranks would be taken seriously. The letter also advised parents that children would not be allowed to wear clown costumes to school for Halloween the following week.
Sammy hadn’t expressed any concerns, and Karina hesitated to ask him, fearing this might make a laughable threat seem more valid—particularly since he’d been doing so well lately. He was learning to adapt, better modulating his response to various stimuli. Even Robert had noticed it. On Sammy’s night to stay with Robert that weekend—a night that always left Karina feeling aimless and bereft, a night on which she typically started and stopped five different shows on Netflix because she just couldn’t concentrate on anything—he’d been able to accompany Robert to a nearby McDonald’s, where he tolerated not only the texture of pickles on his hamburger but also the irate shouts of a frustrated customer who’d requested no onions on her burger.
“Little man did great,” Robert said proudly, slapping Sammy on the back when he’d delivered him to Karina’s door. Sammy was wearing one of Robert’s trucker hats emblazoned with the high school football team’s mascot. “We had a good time. Right, pal?”
Karina forced a tight smile. Things she disliked included: phrases like “little man,” the forced bravado of back-slapping machismo, encouraging your child to eat the dreck they served at McDonald’s.
“Good job, Sammy,” she said, because Sammy was looking up at the two of them, smiling shyly, the upper portion of his face hidden by the oversized hat. It pained her how badly he wanted his father’s approval.
“Maybe the therapy is actually helping,” Robert said, looking at Karina. She could tell, in that moment, that he very much wanted to her to agree with him, to marvel at Sammy’s progress toward normalcy, to celebrate a moment of shared delight in their boy. It was easy to forget the secret tenderness with which Robert cherished his only son. Karina was fond of Robert in that moment: his big, gruff voice and chummy dad-talk. She could sense his need for Sammy to be happy, to be good at being. In this, he too was vulnerable.
“Alright, Sam,” Robert said, nudging Sammy slightly. “Time to show Mom the battle wound.”
Sammy hesitated, lifting the hat so she could see his face in full, his right eye puffy and black, swollen shut.
“My God, Robert,” she said. “What happened?” Karina felt the old, familiar fondness she’d felt for Robert shriveling into something small and hard.
“We were throwing a baseball,” Robert said. “And Sam took it right in the face. He handled it like a champ. Put some frozen peas on it and then got right back out there.”
Already she was kneeling, her hands at Sammy’s forehead, brushing back his hair, kissing his cheek. She pressed her shaking hands on Sammy’s shoulders to steady them.
“Tell your Mom what we talked about, Sammy,” Robert continued. “About signing you up for Little League.”
She stood up again and eyed Robert.
“Sammy doesn’t like baseball,” she said.
“He’s never tried it. I think it’s a good goal,” Robert said. “Good bonding for us. Something for Sam to work toward. Right, pal?” He gave Karina a nod, then Sammy a high-five, then turned to leave.
Robert had driven away before they spoke again.
“You don’t have to do things for Daddy, Sammy,” Karina said gently. “Not if you don’t want to. Daddy loves you, no matter what. I love you, no matter what.”
Sammy nodded, slowly, thoughtfully.
“I know, Mama,” he said. “But maybe we all have to pretend a little.”
She laughed lightly, something twisting in her throat.
“What do you mean, silly?” she asked, careful to keep her voice playful, carefree.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, smiling at her. She knelt, and he kissed her on her cheek, her sweet boy. “Nothing, I guess.”
The art teacher, Janet, found Karina in the library the next day just as a class of first-graders was leaving.
Janet hesitated at the entrance, waiting for the door to close behind the final first-grader before approaching Karina at the circulation desk.
“I wanted you to have these,” she said, passing two large sheets of paper to Karina. “We can’t keep them in the art room but I couldn’t bear to throw them away.”
Karina unrolled the papers, instantly recognizing Sammy’s work.
Clowns. Hideous, marvelous, sneering clowns. They grimaced and chortled and leered from the page, their faces super-saturated with color, stretchy mouths limned in white, menacing. The colors alone were enough to hurt her eyes.
“Unnerving, isn’t it?” the art teacher said. “You can see why I couldn’t keep it around right now, not with all the talk. But, boy, it produces an effect.”
The second picture depicted a single clown who appeared to be laughing in a deranged sort of way as he lurked behind a cluster of unsuspecting children. Karina let the paper drop from her fingers, stepping back reflexively.
“He has a very vivid imagination,” the art teacher continued. “And the gift to translate that into something startling on the page.” She hesitated. “I just hoped you might remind him we’re not drawing clowns in art class right now.”
“Of course,” Karina said, her whole face flushing. “Of course. Sammy’s a good boy.”
The art teacher nodded, placing a reassuring hand on Karina’s. Karina flushed deeper, thinking now of Cooperton, his crafty smile, the way she saw him leaning close to her sensitive boy, whispering in his ear, insinuating these grotesqueries.
“I know,” the art teacher said. “He’s not the only one, Karina. Several of the other children have been drawing clowns, too. Sammy’s just a better artist.”
Karina smiled weakly.
“Thank you,” she said as the art teacher walked away. “Thank you!” Karina called again, already rolling pictures up and tucking them away, so that the clowns, smiles bright as blades, were safely out of sight.
That Friday the children and teachers were all dressing up to celebrate Halloween, which fell on the weekend. Karina had already found her witch’s costume, the same long, black rayon skirt and striped tights she wore every year. Not original, but classic. Didn’t every child at some point imagine his teacher, his mother, any female authority figure, really, as a witch? Wasn’t this why the witch held such eternal appeal?
When she went upstairs to Sammy’s bedroom, pointed hat in hand, she found him sitting on the side of his neatly made bed wearing an ordinary blue shirt and jeans. His plaid shirt and sheriff’s badge remained on the chair, his cowboy hat hanging on the bed post.
“You didn’t dress up,” Karina said.
He studied her in her witch garb. She gave a twirl for him.
“I didn’t want to.”
“I thought you liked your costume,” she said. It stung her to have failed him. “Was the fabric at the neck too scratchy?”
“Oh, no, Mama,” he said. “I just didn’t feel like it. That’s okay, right?”
“Of course,” she said. “But I don’t want you to feel left out.”
“I won’t,” he said. “Don’t worry.”
The school, when they arrived, was festooned with orange streamers and pumpkin decorations. Children swarmed in colorful costumes. There were tiny princesses and Hulks and Batmans, butterflies and firefighters and cats. There were, of course, no clowns. Walking beside her, Sammy looked very small and plain. She knelt by the library door to allow her lips to brush the crown of his head.
“Have a good day,” she called. “I’m sure you’ll have lots of Halloween fun!”
He smiled sadly at her, and she thought for not the first time that Sammy seemed preternaturally old, older than any eight-year-old should be. But she flashed a broad smile back at him, then watched as he marched down the hallway to his classroom.
Although the library was quieter than usual, Karina could sense the giddy energy in the school. There was an air of heightened receptivity, the hint that something alarming or thrilling might happen.
It was still mid-morning when the administrative assistant from the front office called to tell her that Charlie Ledbetter, the principal, wanted to see her. This was unusual. Charlie was a thoughtful man, a good principal, but they weren’t particularly friendly, and he gave her free reign over the library.
Karina walked to Charlie’s office with a faint sense of unease—a sense that was confirmed when she saw Sammy sitting in the chair outside Charlie’s office, swinging his legs peaceably, hands clasped on his lap.
“Sweetie!” she said. “What are you doing here?”
“Mr. Ledbetter told me to wait,” he explained calmly. “He said they were gonna call you.”
She frowned, more questions forming, but Charlie was already at the door to his office, holding it open for her. He was smiling what Karina knew to be his professional smile—the kind of smile he offered parents when there was some difficulty to discuss. She understood then with absolute certitude that she’d been summoned not as the school librarian, but as a parent.
“Karina, have a seat please,” he said, gesturing to the chair across from him.
Her heart was going now, too fast, like she’d been pedaling hard in one of those awful spin classes Trish dragged her to sometimes.
“I hope there’s no problem,” she began. “I hope…”
“There is, unfortunately,” Charlie said, in a voice of practiced calm. “Sammy said some things. He’s scared the other children. I’m sorry, Karina. I know you can’t like hearing this.”
She nodded, her mouth gone dry.
“Sammy told the children he came to school today dressed as a clown,” Charlie continued carefully. “A plainclothes clown, if you will.” He paused, assessing her reaction. “He told the other children that the evil clowns have gotten smart. That they’re disguising themselves in regular clothes.”
She almost laughed.
“But that’s ridiculous!” She emitted a hoarse breath instead, a desperate gush of air.
Charlie pressed the tips of his fingers together one by one, sighing.
“We think it’s best for Sammy to go home early. In light of our costume policy.”
“But, Charlie,” she said. “He’s not wearing a costume!”
“It’s what he said—a conceptual costume.”
She rose, uncertain whether it was anger or humiliation that brought the blood hot and fast to her cheeks and throat.
“I’m sorry, Karina.”
She was already to the door, her head pounding. All the classes were having Halloween parties, parties that Sammy would now miss. She swept out of the office in her witch’s garb, grabbing Sammy by the shoulder much more roughly than she intended, and dragged him out, stumbling behind her, to the car.
They were silent the whole ride home. It wasn’t until they pulled up to the house that Sammy spoke.
“I’m sorry, Mama.”
Karina’s head throbbed.
“Why, Sammy? Why would you say that?”
He shrugged, not meeting her gaze.
“I thought it would be scary.”
She massaged her temples and did not answer him.
She let Sammy watch TV all afternoon while she stalked through the house, pretending to clean, brandishing her very appropriate broom. She didn’t bother to change out of her witch costume, didn’t even bother to wipe the eyeliner wart she’d drawn on her nose. The ibuprofen hadn’t touched her headache.
Sammy was still watching television when she poked her head into the room to tell him she was going to lie down for a minute. He barely acknowledged her, mesmerized by whatever it was he was watching. Ordinarily, she monitored his screen time. Ordinarily, she took such care. And look what good it had done! She would rest her eyes, just briefly, before she started dinner.
When Karina woke, she had the disorienting experience of waking to darkness. A streak of drool had dried at the corner of her mouth. She’d slept hard. It was deep into evening.
Stumbling from her bedroom to the living area, she called Sammy’s name. There was no answer. The television was off. She called him again. Her voice disrupted the almost-supernatural hush she’d managed to achieve in their little household, having sought out only the most inaudible appliances of every sort, the softest rugs, special toilets designed to have the quietest flush. In the daytime, this gave the house the comfortingly familiar quietude of a library; in the nighttime, especially now, there was something sepulchral in the hush. Karina took the steps two at a time upstairs, but the lights were off in Sammy’s bedroom as well. No Sammy.
She supposed he’d gone to the playground while she slept. Even after sunset, children often stayed to play. The playground was well-lit, illuminated by several large street lights. He’d probably gone out, expecting her to call him home for dinner.
Her pace accelerated outside, her breath sharp and sour. She should have gotten a drink of water. The neighborhood held a strange quiet, and she found herself looking over her shoulder even though she’d heard nothing behind her.
There was no one at the playground, not a soul, but she called to Sammy anyway.
“Sammy! Sweetheart! Where are you?”
She worried now that she’d hurt him earlier with her stoniness, her tight-lipped silence. Maybe he was hiding from her, nursing his wounded feelings.
She ducked her head to look inside the tube slide, behind the small pavilion, inside the little playhouse, behind the stalks of ornamental bamboo that grew near the sandbox. He was nowhere.
The other houses in the neighborhood seemed to loom taller around her, strangely elongated and remote, imposing, the smudgy lights from their distant windows containing pleasant domestic scenes that were entirely inaccessible to her. There was no Sammy. He was gone.
Something rustled behind her, and she whipped around, catching only a flash of white through the branches. A human shape. Someone hiding there, watching her. A clown. She shivered hard down the length of her spine, peering into the blackness. There was the crackle of underbrush, and now she could clearly discern the presence watching her: a deer. He was huge: a solemn-faced buck, staring right back.
She laughed nervously to break the silence, to scold herself for her stupidity, to warn the buck away. It turned out she was just as prone to hysteria as anyone. There were no clowns lurking, no pranksters, no threat other than the rampant deer population. But now, no Sammy.
He had probably gone to someone else’s house. Where’s your mother? they would have asked, and then, Let’s get you some dinner.
She turned and headed down the street. She knew her destination now, her steps quick and determined. Turning left, she walked up the hill, took a short cut near the bike path, and over to the adjacent street where Cooperton lived. Sammy would be with Cooperton. It was always Cooperton, Cooperton all along.
A light glowed from the interior of Cooperton’s house. She marched to the door and knocked decisively, waiting. After several minutes, the door opened.
The woman standing there was small and thin, tired at the eyes, wearing unfashionable wire rim glasses and a green sweatshirt fraying at the sleeves. She squinted at Karina, and Karina realized then she was still dressed like a witch: the neighborhood witch, aprowl.
“Yes?” the woman asked, hesitant.
They had never really spoken. She’d heard Cooperton’s mother’s name in passing, but she couldn't think of it. Carol? Carla?
“I’m Sammy’s mother,” Karina said. “I’m looking for him. I thought he might be here, with Cooperton?”
Something flickered across the woman’s face.
“Oh,” she said. “Sammy’s mother. I’ve wanted to speak to you.”
“Is he here?” Karina felt suddenly shamed, caught in a lapse in her mothering. “I fell asleep. I had the worst headache…”
“They were at the playground,” Cooperton’s mother said. “Then your house, I thought.”
“No,” Karina said. “I was just there….”
“Since I’ve got you,” Cooperton’s mother said timidly. “I’ve wanted to talk to you about what your son’s been saying to Cooperton. He’s been frightening him.”
Karina could have laughed; she could have screamed. The world was turned on its head.
“Clowns,” Karina said, sighing. She needed to leave and find her boy. She must have just missed them—Sammy and Cooperton were probably helping themselves to the Goldfish crackers at the house right now.
“Well, yes,” Cooperton’s mom said. “Clowns. But other things, too…”
Karina did not stay to listen. She’d already turned, racing down the street, back down the hill and by the bike path. It was dark, very dark, only the thinnest rim of moon in the sky. A good night for mischief; a night with cover enough to do all the malicious things no one must ever see.
She flew down the hill so fast it felt she was under some enchantment, like she was truly flying, her lungs ragged with the cold air. When her foot caught a bit of uneven ground, she almost stumbled but managed to right herself. Everything was clean and chilled and hard. Her mind held a newfound clarity, burning cold as liquid ice: Sammy. She had to find Sammy and—do what? Shake him, scold him, hug him, stare him deep in the eye?
Rounding the corner where their house was, she slowed at the noise.
A cacophony of sounds poured into the night, rupturing it. Whirring, grinding, whooshing, blending. An entire discordant symphony of modern machinery. It was loud enough to split her head in two. There was music, too, although you could hardly dignify it with the name. Her insides throbbed with bass, the screech of electric guitars tearing at her, the whole blitz punctured by someone yelling. Death metal? She could hardly tell.
Her breath quickened as she drew closer and the house came into view. She saw now it was ablaze with light: every light was on, interior and exterior. The house pulsed with the intensity of sound and light, a living thing, a heart clenching and unclenching. Surely it would soon explode, or erupt, like a scream. The front door stood wide open. She thought she heard shouts above the racket, what sounded like wild, boyish laughter, coming from inside.
Sammy, she thought. He would be writhing, vomiting, helpless.
She thought she heard the laughter again, its taunting quality, and felt she herself would be sick.
Pressing her hands to her ears to muffle them, she climbed the vibrating steps. Her eyes watered now, an old childish reflex that happened when she was frightened. She would find him now, her genius boy, her clever one, and stop his ears with her fists and shield his eyes. All this light and noise, it was positively sinister, their home distorted into a twisted sort of funhouse. But still she called to him, her Sammy, as she stepped over the threshold, into all that light.