The Joker and the Midnight Smokers
Chip slapped down the five-dollar bill like he was a billionaire buying a yacht in cash.
The big guy behind the counter didn’t much seem to appreciate the gesture. In fact, he didn’t really seem to appreciate having a customer at 1:30am when he was in the process of shutting down to begin with. Chip’s antics only further annoyed him.
“Chocolate, vanilla or strawberry?” the man behind the counter said with a thick Russian accent.
“Umm, excuse me?” Chip asked.
“Only thing have right now is soft-serve ice cream.”
Chip looked over the menu on the side of the truck with disappointment, as if gazing at the decals of the various sundaes would be able to change reality.
“You sure you can’t whip me up a banana spl—”
“Only have soft-serve.” The big man sighed.
Chip nodded. The only thing that could possibly ruin his night was if this man decided to punch him out for pestering him. “Make it a strawberry, then, pal.”
“Waffle or regular?”
The Russian guy let out a huge puff of breath. With a thick finger he pointed at the ice cream cone decals on the side of the truck showing the types of cones.
“Oh,” Chip said, “regular. Yeah, regular is fine.”
“Two-dollars.” The Russian guy took the five-dollar bill and went to make the order.
A few moments later, the big guy returned with change and a cone with a hefty mountain of ice cream on it.
Chip put the money in his pocket, grabbed the cone, and told the man to have a good night.
The nightlife in the city was beginning to wind down. Taxis waited on the curbs for club goes and bar hoppers to come seek them. Uber drivers (much to the cab drivers’ chagrin) drove up and down the streets with wide eyes as their GPSes alerted them they were at the location of their patrons.
Groups of interesting characters hung outside of the bars that made up the strip of Girard Avenue. A guy in zebra pants, a pretty girl in a plaid dress with piercings all over her face, metal heads, hipsters, and everything in between intermingled and bonded in huddled circles, smoking their final cigarettes of the night before last call.
It was a normal Saturday night for the rest of Fishtown, but for Chip, this was no normal night. He’d just done his first paid stand-up gig at the Sugarhouse Casino. His set had gone fantastic, even better than the set last week that had landed him the paid gig.
Walking down Girard toward Frankford Ave after a set that had the audience roaring and clapping, was surreal.
It’d only been ten-minutes, but in those ten-minutes Chip had felt like he was sitting amongst the legends; Pryor, Carlin, Cosby, Murphy, C.K.—you name ‘em.
He almost felt sorry for the people he was walking by because they’d never know what that rush felt like.
Settle down, Chip. You’re just a normal guy and this is a normal night.
Chip had always loved strawberry ice cream, but this cone was different, this was the first thing he’d ever bought with money he got from doing comedy.
He was licking the sticky goodness, stopped at the crosswalk of Girard & Frankford and waiting for the sign to tell him it was safe to walk.
Across the street, there were some hipsters out front of Johnny Brenda’s. Some were vaping, others smoking cigarettes, but there was so much smoke surrounding them that they were beginning to be obscured by it.
Jesus. Chip thought.
The cloud of smoke grew larger; he looked at their hands, wondering if maybe they each held three cigarettes because it made no sense for there to be that much smoke. Nope. Only one vape pen or cigarette.
Realizing that he’d been wrong made his throat tickle for some reason.
Then, the smoke was surrounding him. It was everywhere he looked. Left, right, up, down the curtain of smoke enshrouded him. He fell to his knees coughing, dropped his ice cream cone in the process. The strawberry soft-serve made a wet smacking sound as it splattered on the pavement.
Everything faded black.
In Fishtown, no one batted an eye that a man disappeared into thin-air because no one saw it. To the rest of them, nothing had happened.
The room he was in—transported to—smelled like a burned out wick and old books. There was a hint of tea somewhere in the air, too.
The room was dimly lit by candles on the walls. Their orange flames revealed that Chip was surrounded by shelves overstuffed with old books.
A match was struck and a lantern was lit, revealing an old man behind a table. He looked as old as the books, but was smoking on a pipe as if taunting both Father Time and Death to come get him.
“Ah,” he said, smacking his lips. “Welcome.”
“Hi,” Chip said.
He’d done gigs at places where no man had any business performing; like the open-mic at a waffle house somewhere in rural Pennsylvania. His audience that time had been a chain-smoking pregnant woman and an overweight man she was with wearing a Stone Cold Steve Austin shirt. She couldn’t tell if they were a couple, siblings, or mother-and-son.
It was going to take more than this to weird him out.
The old man seemed to have picked up on this. “Hm, you seem calmer than they usually are.”
I’m a comedian. You may have seen me on set at the Sugarhouse Casino. Paid gig. He wanted to throw out, but something told him this old man wouldn’t know what he was talking about.
“Gotta admit, it’s kind of strange to fall asleep surrounded by smoke and wake up—” Chip stopped, and looked around. “To wake up in the Library of Alexandria.”
The old man’s eyebrows knitted. They were so thick and hairy they looked like two white caterpillars meeting for a kiss. “I don’t know who Alexandria is, but this isn’t a library, my young fiend.”
Fiend. Chip noted he pronounced “friend” strange.
The old man grabbed a book from a stack sitting in front of him, and flipped to a page he had book marked. The book was so old Chip thought the pages would disintegrate. Instead of that though, a cloud of dust puffed from pages as they flipped.
Chip stretched his neck out to see if he could peek at what was on it.
“Don’t be shy about it, if you’d like to see the pages, come around the table.” The old man took a drag from his pipe, “of course, I doubt you’ll be able to read it.”
It wasn’t that he was calling him dumb; it was that it was written in another language.
“Hey, is this some cult thing? Because if it is, thank you, but no thanks. I have no interest.”
“Cult?” The old man laughed. “Don’t be absurd. Now listen up, my young fiend, I only have so much time before your transformation.”
This old guy was a loony. “Excuse me?”
“Surely, you don’t think that body is fit for the deeds up ahead, do you?” The old man seemed to be suppressing laughter.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Chip shook his head. “I’m outta here, tell me where the exit is old man. I got stuff to do.”
“Yes, yes you do.”
“I mean jokes to write and liquor to drink, not whatever weird things you have in mind.”
Chip started walking the other way, looking for an exit door.
He couldn’t find it, so he turned, intending to yell at the old man to let him out, but the words stayed behind his mouth.
The old man reached into his robe, and pulled out a wand that looked as worn as everything else in the room. It was gnarled and knotted and could have easily been one of the old man’s fingers if Chip didn’t know any better.
He waved the wand toward him, and Chip was ready to laugh, when he realized he couldn’t. He tried getting away, but his legs were stiff, weighed down as if made of concrete; he was frozen.
The old man waved the wand again. This time the magic sent Chip up into the air and reeling backward.
Chip grunted as he hit a wall and fell to the ground. Whatever had been holding him released its hold.
“Rebellious and unruly. I think you’ll make a fine fiend, indeed.” The old man took a drag of his pipe, and then turned a page on the tome in front of him. “As I was saying, young fiend. You have work to do and I only have limited time to explain what’s going on.”
Chip was still down on all fours. He stayed put, deciding that hearing out this crazy old guy was better than getting slammed again.
“Uh… what are you talking about?”
“Most of it will make sense after your transformation.”
“You’ve been summoned—by me—and will take on your true form to reap souls.” The old man lifted a glass bottle.
“I’m fresh out of my supplies for souls, which I need for some potions and spells and such. So, I’ve summoned you to gather some more for me. Got it?”
“Ah, don’t worry. You’ll understand soon. Your transformation should be starting in about… 3, 2, 1…”
From the space below his ribs, Chip felt something trying to get out of him, like weak hands pushing against his skin. The strength in them got stronger and stronger with each second. He looked, and saw his skin was stretched out a foot from his body, like he was made of dough.
“What the fuck!” He looked up at the old man.
The old man was watching like nothing strange was happening. “You may want to get your strength back after your transformation from this soul I’ve turned into tea for you.”
He pointed at a mug on the table filled with green tea. His finger was crooked with a triangular nail on the end of it.
Chip looked at the mug, and saw that the green tea had been replaced by… what the hell was it? He stepped closer to the table.
It was still a clear liquid, but on the surface, in the reflection was the face of a man. He was screaming, though there was no sound.
Chip didn’t realize he was drooling until he felt the saliva dripping off his chin. It rolled off in three big drops and dripped all over the table.
“What did you drug me with you old fuck—”
But the old man was not there anymore. It was just him and this tea with a person’s face in it… and his strange desire to drink it up.
He reached across the table for the mug, and stopped when he saw his arm was blue and purple—with bright red, oval spots on it. He inspected his other arm; it looked just the same. Looking down, he saw two things that horrified him; one, that he’d grown another set of arms below his ribs, and two, that the rest of his body matched his arms. It was like he’d been burned and then caught the worst case of scabies.
But there was one more surprise; the pink spots opened up, revealing sets of tiny teeth and small tongues. He had turned into something grotesque, and a part of him wanted to find a mirror to see himself in whole.
Instincts in him drove him to pick up the mug with one of his new arms. He poured it into one of the tiny mouths on his arm. It opened up wide to receive the soul.
Emptied out, he put the mug back where it was.
The tiny mouth on his arm licked its lips in satisfaction.
It was gross, but also kind of funny. Chip laughed. The mouths on his body smiled.
This new body, it was strange, but he felt free for the first time. There was no guilt bogging him down of having to write jokes or worry about paying rent or when his next paid gig would be, because that didn’t matter anymore.
All that mattered was the work that had to be done.
He was in the middle of a bong rip when the house suddenly got hot. He took in the smoke, blew it out, then put the bong on the center table.
Johnny stood up, wiping crumbs of pizza crust off his lap.
“Damnit. The unit is fucking up again.” he said to Lou and Mary.
He may as well have said it into the air, because they didn’t hear him amidst their make out session.
Johnny rolled his eyes and then headed for the basement.
The unit failing happened at least once a month. He was grateful he could afford to live on his own at twenty-years young because of his good job, but this central-air conditioning unit messing up as often as it did was a real bummer.
Johnny went down to the basement. It was unfinished, and was more of a cellar, really. Dark, damp, and musty.
He rounded the corner to where the air conditioning unit was. It sat there, freckled over with rust, but still working.
Johnny turned to the heating unit, which was right next to it, and held his hand over it to see if it somehow had been turned on. But there wasn’t any heat radiating from it.
The heat was coming from somewhere else. From deeper in the basement.
Johnny continued through until he got to the door that connected the basement and the garage. That’s where the heat was coming from; he could feel it seeping through the gaps in the doorway like his garage had been turned into a furnace.
An electrical fire. he thought.
Johnny opened the door in a panic. When he saw what was on the other side, he wished he hadn’t ever come down to the basement—no, he wished he’d never bought the fucking house.
It was bad enough that her parents had raised her to be religious, which meant no sex, but they also went and named her after the Virgin Mary. So the chances of them two getting it on were pretty damn low, but Mary was cuter, funnier, and had a better rack than anyone Lou had dated in the past. So, that made up for it.
They pulled their faces away from each other and sat on the opposite ends of the couch when they felt the blast of heat hit them.
Lou noticed Johnny wasn’t in the room. “Where’d four-eyes go?”
“I don’t know. I heard him say something about the air conditioning unit.” Mary shrugged.
He wiped some sweat beads forming under his hairline off his forehead.
“Gosh, it’s so hot in here.” Mary said, fanning herself.
A bright idea formed in Lou’s head, which he would admit didn’t come by him often. “Hey, Mary. Since it’s so hot, why don’t you take your bra off and show me your ta-tas.”
Mary grabbed a throw pillow and threw it at his head. Lou fell back into the couch, laughing.
Lou gathered himself and sat up. He reached over to the center table and picked up a joint, but couldn’t find a lighter.
“You got a lighter?” he asked Mary.
“In my purse.”
Lou grabbed it off the center table and rummaged through it. The lighter was underneath the small Bible she was always carrying around.
He put the purse back and lit the joint up and took a few puffs from it.
An action scene in Die Hard had her attention, so Lou said her name. She took the joint and it was about halfway to her lips when they heard a loud bang coming from the basement.
“The heck?” Mary said, looking over at Lou.
The color in her face had drained, and her freckles stood out more than usual.
Lou laughed again. “He has to hit the unit downstairs real hard to get it to start working again, scaredy pants.”
Mary rolled her eyes, then turned her attention back to the movie and hit the joint.
The transformation had not only changed his appearance, but it changed his vision as well.
The knowledge of what he was, and how this all worked, seemed to be bestowed into his mind upon the completion of his transformation.
He understood the red light shooting down from the ancient library was an exit to return to the Earth realm, where his work was to be done.
Chip climbed the bookshelves, using his new found strength and new found arms toward the red light, toward the summoning point.
There was a hole in the middle of his garage, opened up to a bottomless pit.
Leading to the underworld, or hell, perhaps. He could see a world behind a wall of blaze.
How damn high am I?
But deep down inside, he knew it wasn’t the weed making him see this.
To further squash this thought, a vile creature began climbing out from the hole. No drug, no matter how powerful, would have been able to conjure up such a creature in a person’s mind.
The thing was the color of charcoal, with purple bruises covering its body that shined even underneath the pale light of the garage. There were small mouths all over its torso and limbs.
Johnny wanted to vomit, crap his pants, and run. But he did neither, because he was trapped by the wonderment of what the hell this thing was and what it was going to do.
It’s obvious what it’s going to do, dummy.
Still, he ignored that voice.
The thing finished crawling out of the hole, and stood up to its full length. It was about nine feet tall, the top of its head almost touching the ceiling of his garage.
It had no eyes, only a mouth and a nose on its face, but Johnny somehow knew that it was looking right at him.
Except Chip wasn’t looking at the boy’s flesh, he was looking at the boy’s soul. Just like he’d known the red light in the library was an exit, he knew the blue light emitting from the boy’s heart was a soul. It orbited around the organ like a collection of fireflies.
It looked delicious.
All of the mouths covering his body, including the main one on his face, licked their lips.
“Knock, knock.” The creature said.
The shock that had frozen him loosened its hold, and Johnny uttered: “Wh--what?”
“You’re supposed to say, “who’s there?” not what.” the creature said.
Johnny looked into the garage for something he could wield as a weapon. There was an entire wall to the left of the creature dedicated to tools he’d almost forgotten about in the shock of this situation. Saws, drills, hammers; an arsenal, really, if you looked at it that way.
He ran toward the wall, cutting diagonally across the room to avoid the monster.
Johnny made it, grabbed a hacksaw, and spun around. He held the tool between him and the monster like he was holding a sword.
“St—stay back or I’ll c—cut you.”
All of the mouths on the creature’s body began to laugh, distinct of one another, but together sounded like a laugh track in a sitcom.
Johnny’s face grew hot with embarrassment. “I don’t know what kind of prank this is, but I won’t hesitate to—”
The creature reached out with one of his arms and pulled the hacksaw out of Johnny’s hands as if he were taking a toy from a child and threw it against the wall.
“And here I thought I was the jokester.” The monster said.
The mouths laughed again.
The creature reached out for him, and now Johnny did crap his pants.
The demon grabbed him with its four arms and brought him to the five mouths on its chest. They bit and ripped at Johnny with their teeth.
The boy screamed as chunks of flesh were bitten off him, and his blood spilled on the garage floor. It ran into the gutter drain in rivulets.
The mouths bit deeper and deeper into Johnny’s chest, until they were deep enough to bite his heart. The creature threw him against the wall once the heart was in its mouths.
Chip ate the boy’s heart.
He was covered in his blood, and his mouths licked around the areas to lap it up.
The heart had been warm and still beating, but he needed more souls.
He moved through the garage and went into the basement. There was a light coming down from the top of the stairs. This one blue and that meant he couldn’t go up there without getting hurt.
But he could sense that there were two more young souls waiting for him up there. He’d have to entice them down here somehow.
Chip, as he’d been known in his human form, had been funny on stage. Now, in this form, he’d have to be just as funny, if not funnier, to get his prey down here.
The screams of their friend was drowned out by the sounds of gun fighting and cursing on the TV.
Johnny must have fixed the unit, and that thing must have worked quickly, because the living room wasn’t a sweatbox anymore. Mary was lying across the couch, her head on his chest.
Oddly enough, Johnny hadn’t returned from the basement yet.
They were both pretty stoned, and hadn’t moved a muscle since Lou put the roach down and cuddled up in this position, and neither much felt like going to check up on him. He’d be back any minute, they thought.
The action in Die Hard ceased, and switched over to some dialogue. The sudden change in volume filled the room with a lack of noise that was almost romantic.
“Knock, knock.” a voice coming from the basement eradicated that feeling.
Lou stirred, and looked down at the top of Mary’s head, thinking it was her. “What?”
“You heard it, too? That wasn’t me.” she said, looking up at him.
Lou laughed, then made to get up, and Mary got off his chest and moved to the other end of the couch.
“Fuckin’ Johnny and his pranks.”
“Hey, language.” Mary scolded him.
“Oh, right. Fudgin’ Johnny.” Lou corrected himself, and rolled his eyes.
Mary smiled in satisfaction.
Lou crossed the living room and went into the dining room. He stopped at the top of the stairs leading to the basement.
Strange, the lights in the basement were off, he’d assumed Johnny would have turned them on to see what the hell he was doing down there.
He probably just grabbed one of the flashlights on the shelf next to him instead of flicking the switch. What an idiot.
Lou flicked the switch. The lights didn’t come on. So the bulbs were out and Johnny hadn’t replaced them, what a double idiot.
Lou grabbed a flashlight, and turned it on. “Yo, Johnny, shut your mouth.”
“That’s not how you answer a knock, knock joke. Don’t you kids know anything?” the voice from the basement said.
Lou rolled his eyes. Johnny was one to commit to a prank until it was over. So, whatever his game with this knock-knock BS was, Lou was going to go along with.
Shining the light down the basement, he saw nothing of interest in the beam except for specs of dust dancing through the air. Lou started down the stairs.
“Okay, Johnny, I’ll play. Start over.”
“Who’s there?” Lou stepped down.
Another step lower. “Time who?”
In the beam of his light, at the bottom of the stairs something moved. It was black, and made him think it was a shadow at first, but then he swung the flashlight to see the rest of the figure.
There were tiny mouths with sharp teeth covering the creature’s body, but it was the big mouth on the creature’s face that spoke when it said, “Time for you to die.”
Lou dropped the flashlight, turned around to sprint up them, he was only halfway down the stairs, he’d make it up there and close the door behind him in time.
In reality, he only got two steps and then the monster’s claws were around him. He grabbed at the stair railings, but it was pointless. The creature pulled him harder and the wooden railing snapped.
The creature pulled him deeper into the basement as he screamed for Mary’s help. One of the smaller mouths found Lou’s throat and ripped his larynx out to shut him up.
Mary sat up on the couch when she heard Lou screaming. Great, now the two bozos had decided to team up on the prank.
“Lou?” she said.
She got off the couch and went over to the doorway leading into the basement. The lights were off, but when she went to flick the switch, she saw it was already in the ON position.
Oh well, there was one more flashlight. She pointed it at the bottom of the stairs, and she saw there was another flashlight in the middle of the stairs. Its light bulb flickered like it was about to shut off.
“Guys, this isn’t funny. Quit it.”
“I have a good joke you might find funny, though.” a voice said from down in the basement responded.
Another one of Johnny’s dumb voices, Mary thought. It was better than his British or Australian accents, though.
“You guys are stupid.” Mary called down. “Did you guys fix what was wrong with the unit?”
“Why did the chicken cross the road?”
“Lou, tell him to stop or I’m going home.”
“Wrong. It was to avoid being choked by the hand.”
An arm went flying up the stairs, and landed on the steps with a meaty thud. Her first thought, that it was some prop Johnny had gotten from a Halloween shop, was squandered when she saw the arm had the exact bird tattoo Lou had on his forearm. The arm was detached from her boyfriend, ripped up where it’d once been connected to the shoulder. Blood poured out from it and oozed down the stairs.
The monster started up toward her, racing up on all fours—no, all sixes—after her.
She turned, and ran for the front door.
Behind her, she could feel the monster’s heavy footsteps following her through the dining room, through the living room. The thing almost breathing down her neck. She hit the center table, shin first, and tripped.
As she did that, her purse fell on the back of her head. It was heavy, and she felt the impact leave a mark that would turn into a bump tomorrow.
She grabbed the purse, and turned around to her back to see where the monster was.
By some miracle, the monster was stopped in its tracks. Its four arms were shielding its face like the sun was in its (nonexistent) eyes.
It took Mary a few seconds to figure out why, but of course, it was the Holy Bible in her purse.
The tides turned in her favor. God hadn’t called her number yet. Mary rose to her feet and pulled the book out like someone unsheathing a sword.
The light coming from whatever the girl was holding burned at Chip’s skin like he’d been thrown into an oven.
“Get it away!” he roared.
But it was only going to get worse.
Mary wasn’t sure how long until the monster tried fighting through the pain and coming after her, so she had to act quickly.
She threw the Bible at the monster, then pivoted on her heels and continued to the front door. She fumbled with the two locks on the door for a few seconds, but then finally got it right and pulled it open.
Mary peeked over her shoulder for a split second to see where the monster was and what was happening. The thing was engulfed in blue flames.
Mary sprinted out into the street.
The moment the source of the light made contact with his skin, Chip felt flames scorching his body.
Now it was his turn to scream in pain. All of the mouths screamed as the flames burned him alive. He fell to the floor, tried dropping and rolling the way they taught him in grade school, but it was no use.
The Bible had already defeated him.
The blaze grew bigger by the second.
His head turned to ashes, then his limbs. The last to go was the torso.
The Holy Bible lay intact next to the pile of ashes.
Both the demon and the stand-up comedian named Chip ceased to exist.
The souls of the teens the demon killed came into the old man’s house.
“Ah, only two of you?” he grabbing the souls in his palm and stuffed them into a jar, then put the lid on it.
He was a bit disappointed. He thought the joker demon he’d summoned would have had more in him. Oh well, sometimes things didn’t work out as planned.
Besides, Earth had plenty of demons he could summon up. All he had to do was say the magic words and turn to the right page.
He grabbed a book from one of the piles on his desk and flipped it open.
“Ah, that sounds interesting.” he said, finding the next demon to be summoned for his doing.