A discordant chiming drifted up on the wind, half-drowned-out by the hard hiss of winter rain. Billy shuddered, then leaned out over the rail of his third-floor balcony, the freezing steel burning against his palms as he peered out into the night, waiting for the ice cream van to creep up the street. Sweat burst out all over his face, rainwater washing it down to sting his eyes. It should have been a happy little tune playing on the wind, but instead the van’s chimes oozed all the mirth of a serial-killer’s soulless laugh.
Slippers scuffed behind him. “Billy, please stop. It’s eleven at night,” Lisa said. “Just…come back in.”
He tore his gaze away from the street below to look into his wife’s dark-circled eyes. She stood bare-legged and shivering in the cold, an old blanket shrouding her body.
“You might have forgotten our son, but I haven’t,” he said, wincing even as he did so, the tone of his voice coming out far harsher than intended.
Our son that didn’t exist, he thought, whose name he couldn’t seem to remember.
Lisa’s shoulders slumped. She seemed to crumple into herself as if he’d reached out and crushed her heart in a giant fist. She turned and trudged into the bedroom, dragged the door shut behind her. She was done with arguments, finished with trying to reason with him.
He wanted to scream his frustration at her – how could she not feel that crushing sense of loss? But there was no real evidence of his son ever existing: no crayon drawings stuck to the walls, no small pointy toys or Lego lurking in the carpet ready to ambush bare feet, and even the family photos on the mantelpiece had disappeared. Nobody else had noticed, and nobody remembered – not Lisa, not even his own mum and dad. But he had a nagging surety about all of it. The walls still had small holes where photos had once been hung, and the fireplace bore a small chip that sent his mind reeling. Somehow he felt his son had caused that – a foggy memory of falling vase and a blurred guilty face.
The bastards couldn’t take everything from him! He wasn’t crazy – so everybody else had to be. He couldn’t bear the yawning absence in the room, or the small chip that drew his eyes…so he turned back to the street and stepped out into the rain.
The chimes grew louder and clearer, and his dread deeper. The thing was coming.
Numbed fingers reached into his pocket and fumbled the camera from its case. The grimy ice cream van crept up the street and limped to a stop. Faded cartoon characters decorated the sides of the van, their misshapen, daubed eyes staring with all the horror of a shell-shocked squaddie ankle-deep in mud and guts. They seemed to him to be forever silently screaming, imprisoned on the walls of that van. The chimes cut off, plunging the street into sudden silence. Even the hiss of rain died off to a soft steady patter.
He fumbled at the camera buttons, opened the shutter and zoomed in. He clamped his jaw shut to stop teeth chattering and tried to steady his hand to take the photos. He’d show them he wasn’t the crazy one. What the hell was an ice cream van doing out on the streets at 11p.m. in winter anyway? he thought.
Oh, there had always been urban myths of ice cream vans dealing drugs to scabby junkies and wayward kiddies in dodgy parts of town, but he knew this van wasn’t dealing drugs. It was here for something far worse. He didn’t think the owner was even human.
A door opened in the block of flats opposite. Jim from the local pub emerged, his son David leading him out by the hand. A half-formed image flashed into Billy’s mind: little David kicking cans down the street on the way home from school, the hazy outline of another boy by his side – Billy’s own son. He knew it from the depth of feeling welling up from inside, that relentless vice called loss crushing his chest.
“My son…” he said, staring through the lens as they walked towards the ice cream van. But he couldn’t shout a warning, he had to take the photo, had to show everybody what he’d seen. He had to wait and-
“Stop!” he shouted. He just wasn’t able to do it; he didn’t have it in him to stand by and do nothing, to watch another boy being taken. “Get away from that van.” But, impossibly, they didn’t seem to hear, didn’t so much as look his way.
He turned and bolted through the flat, heart hammering as he drummed down the stairs as fast as half-frozen legs would allow.
The front door rattled on its hinges as he burst out into the street. He couldn’t see them, and the front seats of the van were empty. Everybody had to be on the other side. Bile rose to sear his throat as he lurched across the street.
Then Jim appeared, chewing, heading back home, a 99’er clutched in his hand. He’d already sucked out the chocolate flake to leave a hollow pit in the ice cream. He clocked Billy and stiffened, swallowed. “Alright, Billy?” he said. “Er, how’s things?” He shifted on his feet, eyes flicking to the door to his block of flats. He must have heard all that bloody gossip about his ‘breakdown,’ Billy realised.
Billy panted to catch his breath. “Are you OK?”
Jim nodded. “Aye, not bad. Anyway, er, best get back in.” He started for the door.
Billy moved to where he could see the other side of the van. Bright light illuminated all the stacked up sweeties clustered around the window in the side, a normal sight in any ice cream van. But nobody stood on the other side of the counter.
And there was no little boy.
“Where’s David?” Billy said.
Jim frowned. “Who?”
Billy grabbed his arm. “Your son, Jim, your god-damned son! Where is he?”
Jim shoved him away. “Piss off, you eejit. I don’t have a son. Away and take your medication, you weirdo.” Keeping one eye on Billy, he backed away to his door, slammed it shut behind him.
Billy swallowed, a worm of dread uncoiling in his belly as he slowly turned to face the window in the van.
It was every kid’s dream: vibrant rainbow colours, boxes of sweeties and bags of candy-floss, enough sugar to rot every tooth in a five-mile radius. But this van was no dream. It was a fucking nightmare.
From beneath the counter, the clown slowly rose up to his full gangly height. It wore the sagging face of a middle-aged alcoholic, white and red paint caked between his grimy stubble, hair slicked back and glistening green, all contained in a baggy white suit crusted with yellow stains. The clown’s grinning face seemed to ripple as if seen through water. “Boo,” it said in a whispering voice that owned nothing human.
Billy’s blood turned to ice, and his feet froze to the spot. Every animal instinct screamed at him to turn and run, or curl up and cry, but he couldn’t move. The Clown –all clowns–terrified him beyond reason, and always had.
It wasn’t the habitual horror of seeing some manic B-movie clown with a bloody axe on TV; this clown radiated the quiet wrongness of something normal twisted into utter perversion, the sort of man that would tie a plastic bag around a kid’s head just to watch what happens, and just because he can.
“Billy-boy,” it said. “How lovely to taste you again.”
Something broke inside him, hysteria bubbling up. He reached over the counter, pulled the clown across it until they were face to face. His shaking hand felt slick and oily around the crusty white material. Something viscous squidged out between his fingers. “Where’s David? And where’s my son?”
The clown’s eyes widened. “No other boys here, Billy-boy,” it said with a breath of nicotine ashes and red wine vomit. A sly, knowing smile slid across his face. “No more fresh little nibbles.”
Billy pulled his fist back to vent the surge of hysterical fear and anger. The clown’s mouth gaped wide, revealing no jaw of human bone and teeth, but a black tunnel to nothingness. It inhaled.
Billy woke to a scream, falling from the sofa, knees crashing to the scuffed laminate flooring. Then he realised the scream was his. As his panicked gaze darted across the room, the balcony doors slammed off the wall again, blown open by the wind.
He staggered over to the rails, looked down into the dimly lit street. Wind and rain scoured his face and hands but he didn’t feel it.
“It was real,” he snarled. “Real!” He was fully dressed, clothes and coat dry, but his body was still freezing.
The bedroom door creaked open behind him. It was only Lisa, bleary-eyed and blinking.
“Sorry I woke you,” he said. “But that thing was here again. It took David from across the street.”
She stared at him. Her sudden shriek tore through him as she leapt back into the bedroom and slammed the door. “Get the hell out of my flat! I’m phoning the police.”
He grabbed the bedroom door handle, pushed down. It resisted – Lisa was holding it from the other side. She screamed, half fear, half outrage. “Get out!”
“Lisa, it’s me. It’s Billy. What’s gotten into you? Open the door.”
“Hello, Police?” she sobbed. “A man’s broken into my flat.”
Billy staggered back, left stunned and shaking as she rattled off their address. A sudden realisation about the room prickled his attention, something he’d overlooked. A closer look revealed that every single one of his possessions was missing. Every photo of Lisa and he, every knick-knack and gaudy present his parents brought back from holidays, all gone.
“No,” he said. “Not possible…” It was the same as when the clown had taken his son. Part of his life had been erased. Eaten. But that was crazy, he thought. There had to be another reason; maybe Lisa wanted a divorce, had boxed up all his stuff? Yes, that had to be it.
He hammered on the door. “Lisa!” he shouted. “Stop pretending you don’t know who I am. I’m your husband for God’s sake. Open the damn door and let’s talk about it. Why are you doing this?” He pulled the handle, slowly forced it down against her resistance. She screamed from the other side of the door, fear naked in her voice. She wasn’t pretending.
“Just get out, you sick bastard” she said. “The police will be here any minute.”
He stared at the door, slowly prised his hand from the handle.
“I…I’m sorry,” he mumbled, drifting to their front door. In a daze he let himself out, stumbled down the stairs and out into the street. He couldn’t think, just knew he had to get away. By the time the scream of sirens shattered his daze he was three streets away up-chucking the contents of his guts onto the pavement. He blinked away rainwater as a police car flashed past leaving light trails smeared across his night vision.
He drew his sodden coat about himself and stumbled off into the night, finding himself adrift on a sea of numbing confusion. The chill seeped into his bones as he walked the streets, head down, rusty knife of anguish twisting in his heart. The icy drizzle and freezing wind felt somehow appropriate, a scouring manifestation of his inner pain. Body shivering, teeth chattering, fingers clumsy as gloves, he moved through the streets on autopilot.
A sudden movement in front roused him. A grubby old man with bushy white beard and green bobble-hat grabbed hold of his arm and shoved him off the dim orange-lit street into the darkness of a doorway. He spat in Billy’s eyes, then pressed a something sharp against his side to still his cry of disgust.
The old man lifted a finger to his lips as Billy wiped at his face. “Hush, laddie, it’ll hear you.” He crouched down, peeked the corner of an eye out of the doorway. His hand clamped onto Billy’s. “Look.”
Billy pressed himself against the wall, numb cheek scraping along sandstone until Byres Road came into view.
A young woman, a student maybe, was walking down the street, face hidden beneath an umbrella angled against the wind. She was passing their side-street, heels clacking. A streetlight blinked off as she passed. When it fizzed back on she wasn’t alone. But she didn’t seem to see it.
Billy almost cried out, but a rough hand clamped around his mouth.
A bald man padded barefoot two steps behind her; or at least it looked like a man at first. His grey skin was warped and uneven, almost as if he’d been melted. His only clothing was a pair of mouldy, torn jeans, his naked torso showing every rib, the cheeks and eyes hollow pits of darkness. He glistened, flesh slick with layers of oil like he’d been deep-fried. The rain sloughed off him in a torrent of droplets like he was shedding lice with every step. The sight hit Billy on some deeply instinctive level, an urge to bare his teeth in a snarl or slink off into a hole. Maybe both. The girl finally seemed to sense something. She stopped, turned, and lifted her umbrella. Her eyes scanned the night, saw nothing. The grey man grinned at her, revealing dagger-teeth like a piranha. Gills fluttered open on the side of his neck.
“A Sleekit One,” the old man said. She spat on the ground. “Now you can see it, too. I still have that much magic left to me.”
Billy nodded. The pressure on his mouth eased and the sharp object pressing into his side disappeared. “What do we do?” he whispered.
“Do? We do nothing. That girl is gone.”
By the time Billy could process the answer, the Sleekit One had opened its mouth wide, was inhaling, chest expanding like some sort of toad.
The old man’s hot breath festered against his cheek. “Keep her in your head, laddie. Don’t let her go.”
She seemed to waver, and then both girl and grey man were suddenly gone. A silent thunderclap of existence rushed in to fill the gap, a flood that crashed into Billy’s memories trying to wash all of her away. He gritted his teeth, tried to picture the girl, the memory slipping and sliding like oil on water. His memory eroded away like a fabulous sandcastle defying the incoming tide, and when the flood abated only a shapeless lump of memory remained. Her face was gone, but enough was left for him to know what had happened.
The old man slumped down in the doorway. “That Sleekit bastard.”
“Sleekit One?” Billy said, the name sliding around his mouth like a rancid oil-slick. He cleared his throat, still staring out at the empty street. “It’s the perfect crime. Nobody will even know it took her.”
“Aye,” the man said. “Nothing as sly and cunning as one of those bloody things. She may as well have never existed.”
Billy’s legs buckled, the dangerous chill in his body now eating away the last dregs of his strength. The man caught him.
“Here now, laddie. You’re freezing. Let’s get you dry.” He hauled Billy up and walked him past rows of parked cars, and then down a lane to squeeze into a narrow and neglected space between two university buildings, a space that Billy had never even noticed before. The man had built a den of polythene and cardboard between two large metal bins. It was out of the wind and rain at least.
Billy fell in face-first, buried himself into a fortress of soft sleeping bags as his body gave out and plunged him into darkness.
He woke dry and warm, curled up on his side, cocooned in a sleeping bag and layers of dirty blanket. For a few blissful minutes, he lie there dozing as consciousness filtered back. He rolled onto his back and suddenly realised he was entirely naked. For one claustrophobic moment he panicked, until he found the zip and struggled free. Cold air wafted across naked flesh.
A bushy beard and bobble-hat pushed through the slit in the polythene doorway. “Finally up, eh?” The old man said, eyes scanning across Billy’s nakedness. “Got a pal to stick your clothes in the tumble dryer. You should be good to go.” He tossed a bundle of clothes in and nipped back outside.
Billy dressed quickly and emerged to a camping stove and a small pot of beans bubbling away. The old man passed him a spoon and bowl, and doled out a good dollop of beans. Billy’s stomach growled and he wolfed them down as the old man watched. He looked meaningfully at the pot and the scrapings of beans left behind.
“Help yourself,” the man said. “I’ve already eaten.”
So he did, shovelling spoonful after spoonful into his mouth. He paused between mouthfuls, taking a deep shuddering breath as images of last night flashed though his mind. “Thanks for the food,” he said. “I’m Billy.”
The old man gave a lopsided, knowing smile. “I know. Call me Gregg,” he said. “Some call me the West-End Wizard. What a laugh that is.” He shrugged. “Some say I got a touch of the second-sight from my mother. You have a touch of the sight, too, you know – that’s how you can see The Sleekit Ones.”
Billy choked a mouthful down, the beans suddenly turned tasteless. “That thing last night…it was different.”
The old man scowled. “Aye, that’s my doing. Made you see what the girl saw. Her childhood nightmares given flesh.” His eyes flared with anger. “What did you see when they took your kid?”
Billy started. “How did you-” The man’s expression seemed to answer better than words. “You, too?”
The old man showed no emotion. “That’s what these things do, they eat away folk’s existence, make it like they were never there. They like kids the most, more life in them I suppose. Then they take folk’s memories to cover their tracks. That thing last night? Well I want it dead. Have more than enough reason, and I’m not going to elaborate.”
It took a moment for Billy to force the words out. “A clown. I saw a clown.” He couldn’t suppress the shudder.
“Bloody clowns,” Gregg said. “Whoever thought they were funny for kids needs shooting.”
“What are those things?” Billy said. “How can they even exist?” It felt like the life he had known was a sham, blindly treading unknown waters above a black abyss.
“I call them Sleekit Ones,” Gregg replied. “Because they are right sly, oily bastards. But if you go way back, the folklore calls them Brollachan, formless shape shifters that take the form of the things you fear the most.”
Billy put the bowl down and buried his face in his hands. “What do I do? My son…”
“How long ago did they take him?”
“Five weeks ago, I…think.”
The old man seemed to mull it over. “Might still be a chance. Still two days before the next new moon, and they always hunt just before. Your son’s existence won’t be…digested, not yet, but any later and any chance of getting your kid back is gone forever.”
Billy lifted his tear-stained face from his hands, eyes fixed on Gregg. “How?”
“You need to trap the bugger and force a deal out of it. It will let him go to save itself.”
“Tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”
“You won’t like it.”
“I’ll do anything to get my son back. And my life.”
“I see. We have a deal then. The things like the chase and their sick games, tend to play with their food like a bad kid pulling the legs off spiders. They are very territorial, very predictable, and stick to the same old hunting grounds, the same old prey, and the same old hunting methods time after time until they use them all up. We can use that against them. Here’s what you need to do…”
Billy’s face drained of colour as Gregg explained it all. He took a long time answering. Finally he nodded. “I’ll do it.”
“Good.” Gregg’s lips twitched into a smile. “Very good.”
Billy darted from the shadows of the doorway and grabbed the boy – a student most likely – and pressed the serrated knife to his throat. His hand shook as the boy cringed back. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “But I have to do this. Once you’ve done what I say I promise you can go home. I really don’t want to hurt you.”
Gregg hung back in the gloom beyond the streetlights, watching, his face unreadable. Then his head snapped round as a streetlight further down the main road blinked off and back on with an electric hum. He nodded to Billy. “It’s time.”
Billy grabbed the boy’s arm and hauled him upright. “Just go to the streetlight, wait for a minute, and then walk very slowly up the hill. That’s all you have to do. Once you get to the top you run home. Understand?”
The student nodded. Wet eyes wide and staring at the knife in Billy’s hand.
“Sorry,” he said. “So sorry.” He let go and the boy started to walk.
“And don’t go looking back,” Gregg added.
Billy withdrew to the shadows as he crossed the short space to the streetlight, where the kid stood shaking, arms wrapped protectively around himself.
A flickering shadow caught Billy’s attention as it drifted up the street. His brain tried to make sense of it, but couldn’t quite seem to resolve it as one thing or another. As it drew closer it took on humanoid form, grew bright colours and frizzy red hair, white painted skin, nose growing red and globular. He gagged and cringed back.
Gregg’s hand clamped around the back of his neck, squeezed hard. “Don’t choke, laddie. Last chance to get your son back. Or is he worth so little to you?”
Billy gritted his teeth. “Let go.”
“Good boy, Billy,” Gregg said, backing away three steps. “Get ready. No hesitation now, you’ll only have a few seconds.”
The student glanced around, then began walking slowly up the street, clearly fighting the urge to run.
Billy reached into his pocket and drew out the wrought iron spike he’d wrenched from a fancy gate. The cheap knife didn’t have enough iron in it apparently. Gregg had said he needed to do it himself, and for some occult reason the old man couldn’t so much as touch it if this was to work, all part of the deal he had to make.
The Sleekit One stalked closer, leaving slimy footprints behind with each step it took towards the boy. It reached out and touched his neck. He spun, froze at the shock of seeing it for the first time, whatever horror it was that it made him see.
Billy surged from the shadows and plunged the iron spike deep into the clown’s back. It screamed without sound, a wave of agony that tore directly into his mind. It cuffed the boy to the ground with one gloved hand, the other grabbing Billy by the throat, lifting him into the air with ease.
Panic flooded through Billy, legs kicking futilely, fingers scrabbling at the hand choking the life from him. Gregg had been wrong. It stretched a hand back, tried to grab the iron spike and pull it free. Its fingers hissed where they touched the iron, and pull as it might, the spike didn’t move an inch. The wound in its back bubbled and hissed angrily.
“Who are you, boy, that you can see me?” It said, clown face grimacing. A long pink tongue writhed from between painted lips to lick a wet trail up Billy’s cheek. “Did you think that iron would kill me, little toy? How sadly misinformed you are.”
“Not kill you,” Gregg said. “Just weaken you.” The Sleekit One turned to stare at Gregg as the old man emerged from the shadows. Its eyes widened. “No…” It let go, tried to run.
“Yes,” Gregg hissed. His mouth yawned unnaturally wide. He sucked in air. A wind tore into the clown. Its body wavered, then dissolved into a mist sucked into Gregg’s convulsing throat. A long tongue emerged from the old man’s mouth to lap his lips.
Billy coughed, rose to his knees as the old man rippled. The white beard changing into grimy white and red painted skin, green bobble hat melting into the slicked back green hair of the ice cream van clown. A strangled rattle emerged from Billy’s throat.
“Hello Billy-boy,” it said. “Missed me, did you? Well done my useful little tool, helping me to get rid of that intruder into my territory. I can’t handle iron myself after all. Still, always more where that little upstart came from.”
Billy screamed, leapt at it. It swatted him down with contemptuous ease, then stood over him. “Now, now. None of that. You’ll be getting your boy back, just as I said.” It shrugged. “Well, for a little while. You are useless to me as you are now; too unstable. I like predictable. That’s why I chose you after all, Billy-boy. So dreadfully dull.” It leaned over, mouth stretching wipe to reveal a black void inside. It exhaled, rancid, greasy breath flowing across Billy’s body, into his mouth and nose, squirming deeper inside.
Billy jerked upright, shouting, duvet flapping open to let cold air in to chill his sweat. He staggered from his own bed into the living room, heart pounding.
“What’s up, Hun?” Lisa said, pausing the film on the TV. “Not feeling any better?”
“I…” Billy wiped the sweat from his forehead, stared at her in confusion as vague and disquieting emotions bobbed up inside him. “A nightmare, I guess.” As dreams do, the details were melting away. He felt utterly drained, ground down to a shadow of himself.
His eyes leapt to the other bedroom door as it creaked open.
Little Stephen yawned and rubbed bleary eyes as he padded barefoot from his bedroom. “Dad?”
Billy swept him up into his arms, held him tight, not quite knowing why.
Lisa frowned. “Are you OK?”
“Fine,” he said. “Just a horrible dream.” The clock on the wall clicked as the hands moved to eleven.
The chimes of an ice cream van filtered in from outside. Stephen’s eyes got big and excited. “Ice cream!”
“It’s too late,” Billy said. “Way past your bedtime.”
“Pleeeasssseeee, Dad!” Stephen said, wriggling free.
Lisa rolled her eyes. “Just this once then. You woke him up so you can take him down.”
Billy shivered, a formless dread rising up from somewhere deep inside. Stephen grabbed him by the hand and dragged him towards the door.
Cameron Johnston is a Scottish writer of fantasy and horror and a member of the Glasgow Science Fiction Writers’ Circle. His fiction has previously appeared in The Lovecraft eZine, Buzzymag, and several anthologies. He is a student of Historical European Martial Arts and when not writing or reading far too much he can be found swinging swords, exploring ancient sites, and camping out under the stars. His musings can be found on Twitter @CamJohnston
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Story illustration by Steve Santiago.