This is part one of a five-part short story called “1954”. It’s the story of a boy, Chief, who has become troubled by nightmares of a clown that murders him in his sleep. Maybe the love of his mother will make the nightmares stop…then again…maybe not.
Mama wasn’t right, though.
The nightmares continued each night, for weeks and weeks and every night they became more graphic and more gruesome in detail. Some nights, Chief would wake up in the yard, trembling and covered what looked like small scratches from an animal or some kind of rugged bush.
“What do you see in your nightmares?” Chief’s mother asked him one morning as she drove him to school. It was warm out, but he was wearing a turtleneck to cover up the grid of thin red scratches that traced his arms. Dark bags hung under chief’s eyes and his belt was pulled so tight that a long length of it hung down around his hips. He looked up at her big empty eyes and frowned as he considered her words.
“It’s always the same thing,” he said in a quiet voice. “I go to bed, but there’s a clown there, waiting for me. He’s not a clown. He’s a man. But he’s wearing a clown mask and he has a big knife. He laughs while he stabs me, over and over and over. Sometimes I run, but I never get far. He always catches me, and he always kills me.”
Chief’s mother frowned but she never took her eyes off the road. They drove a while in silence, and she didn’t speak to him again until they reached the drop off line.
“Let’s not tell any of your teachers about this, okay?”
Her voice sounded unsure, but Chief was so tired he hardly heard it. Instead, he just gave his mother a watery thin smile as he climbed out of the car.
“Sure, mom. I won’t tell anyone.”
He didn’t have to. That afternoon, Chief’s teacher, Mr. Peterson, gave his mother a call.
“This is Mr. Peterson, Chief’s teacher. I was wondering if I could catch you at the school today when you dropped by to pick him up?”
It was the last call a mother wanted, but Chief’s mother wasn’t any mother. She smiled through the phone and gave his teacher a sweet voice, asking politely if everything was okay with her son and agreeing to come in for a short impromptu meeting just as soon as she could get away from work.
She didn’t show up until all the other kids were gone and the prying eyes of their parents had long driven away. Chief was sitting alone in the corner, drawing, when she waltzed in with her twenty dollar heels clicking and a cloud of cheap perfume billowing all around her.
“Ms. Rutherford,” Mr. Peterson said, rising from his desk on the other side of the room and making his way to the door. He held his hand out in front of him and shook hers eagerly as soon as it was offered.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you at last. A pleasure.”
Rutherford was a small man, with thick black glasses that made his eyes look oversized. A bald head sparkled above a speckled polyester blend and the pleats of his slacks folded down neatly just above the the sheen of his polished penny loafers. Next to him, Betty Rutherford looked like a Hollywood starlet, her curled blonde hair and ruby red lips a shocker next to the teachers pale demeanor.
“Thank you Mr…Peterson? I’m sorry for running so late. Single working mother. It’s hard.”
The man fidgeted awkwardly. No one liked to talk about the death of Eric Peterson quite like his own widow, who used it whenever she could to remind people that she did on her own what most people did in pairs.
Chief got up from his seat at the back of the classroom and made his way to the front, where he took a new seat beside his mother. Mr. Peterson perched on the edge of his desk and looked down at the two of them over the top of his thick black glasses. His arms crossed over his chest.
“Ms. Rutherford, I’ll just get right down to it. I’m wondering if you’ve noticed any behavioural changes in your son?”
Betty gave Chief a sharp look, but the boy just stared down at the floor. He kicked his feet and hardly flinched when they squeaked against the linoleum. Chief’s mother looked from her son back to the teacher.
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about. Behavioural changes?”
“Yes. In your son. His moods and the way he interacts with others?”
Chief wanted to look up at his mother or Mr. Peterson, but he didn’t dare. Instead he kept his eyes glued to the floor and his head cupped in his hands.
“What are you talking about?”
Mr. Peterson sighed before shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
“Ms. Rutherford, quite frankly, I’ve noticed that your son has become withdrawn at school. He’s falling asleep, he seems to have difficulty focusing on tasks. Chief is having a lot of problems working with the other children in the class, and whenever the other children get told to be in a group with him, they get scared and say they don’t want to work with Chief because he’s ‘weird’.”
Betty’s cheeks turned red and invisible waves off steam started cooking off of her. The last thing you ever wanted to tell Betty Rutherford, mother of the year, was that her child was “weird”. She shot up from her chair, her purse dangling from one arm and pointed a finger right at Mr. Peterson’s chest.
“Are you telling me my kid is a weirdo?” She snarled. “Are you serious right now?”
Peterson recognized immediately that he had overshot his bounds.
“No, no, no,” he said, throwing up his hands and waving them in defense. “I think you misunderstand me, Ms. Rutherford.”
Something in his voice gave her pause and Chief’s mother resumed her seat hesitantly, never taking her piercing glare off the mousey teacher. When Peterson was sure he was no longer under threat of attack, he eased back a little, and cleared his throat, trying to make his voice softer.
“I understand that you and your son have suffered a great loss. I just wonder if maybe Chief doesn’t need some extra help dealing with that loss. Losing a father is…”
“Let me stop you right there,” Betty cut in. “Dont’ tell me how to raise my son, Mr. Peterson.”
It was clear from her tone that she brook no further argument.
“Is he passing this class, Mr. Peterson?”
“Y-y-yes,” stammered the teacher, taken aback once more by the mother’s aggressive nature. “He is.”
“Is he turning in all his homework?”
“Well, for the most part. But the last couple of weeks…”
“Does he have a passing grade?” Ms. Rutherford snapped, planting her hands on the desk and rising up out of her seat once more. “Is his grade good enough to get him the fuck out of your class and on to the next thing?”
Peterson’s cheeks turned red and his jaw dropped in mimic of shock. He stammered something that Chief could not make out and pulled back, as if he wished he could disappear.
“That’s good enough for me, then,” Betty Rutherford snapped, standing up and throwing out her hand in a motion for Chief to get beside her. Her son climbed out of his desk and took her hand, standing alongside her like a shadow, staring up at the teacher with a blank gaze that said nothing and everything.
“Don’t call me again until his grades drop to a ‘fail’,” she snapped as they made their way to the door. “And don’t you ever presume to tell me how to handle my son’s grief. You didn’t know his father and you sure as hell don’t know me.”