Carlos picked at his macaroni and cheese, trying not to look up at the picture on the wall. Grandma set down her fork and looked at him, frowning.
"What's wrong? You liked that the last time you were here."
That was last Christmas, when the only clowns in the room were the salt and pepper shakers sitting in the middle of the table, which he'd turned towards the wall. The hideous drawing above his head – two clowns standing beside a tiny car - had been in the living room then. He remembered shifting around the living room, trying to open his presents, but no matter where he went one of the clowns was staring at him, smiling its eerie, hungry half-smile.
When he'd sat down to eat ten minutes ago both clowns were staring down at him. He didn't feel like he was having dinner. He felt like he was fattening himself up for their dinner.
He'd tried to tell Mom and Dad about the clowns, but they brushed his fears aside, just like they'd done with the monster under his bed. They didn't want to drag him to the funeral and no one else was willing to watch him for two days, so off to Grandma's he went.
"Oh! I almost forgot." Grandma got out of her seat and hobbled away. Carlos almost begged her to stay, but instead he swiveled around to watch the clown picture. Things like the clowns and the monster under his bed would behave as long as there was a grown-up around, but as soon as he was alone...
The clowns in the picture knew it too. They seemed to be leaning forward, their smiles widening, lips curling back to reveal too many teeth-
Carlos jumped out of his seat and moved away from the table. He wanted to keep all four clowns where he could see them.
Grandma came hobbling back, holding a package about the size of a shoebox, wrapped with shiny purple paper.
"I remember you were so afraid of the dark the last time you were here. So I got you a present." She slid it onto the table beside his plate.
Carlos looked back up at the drawing. The clowns were standing up straight again, smiling their half-smiles. He was safe, for now. He picked up the present and began to peel back the paper. Inside was a white cardboard box, which he opened to reveal-
He screamed and dropped the box, backing away.
Lying on the floor, half-in and half-out of the box and grinning up at him with impossibly huge teeth, was a plastic clown.
Grandma scowled and picked up the clown. "It won't bite you."
Of course it would. There was no other reason for a clown to have teeth that size. Why did grown-ups never understand these things?
"It's a night light. You plug it in and- look."
She plugged the cord into a nearby outlet and flicked a switch on the clown's back. The clown's eyes and teeth lit up, giving off an eerie glow the color of sour milk.
Carlos suppressed a whimper. No. He wasn't going to sleep with that thing staring at him.
Grandma's frown deepened. "Didn't your parents teach you to say 'thank you'?"
They had, but the thought of thanking Grandma for the clown was ridiculous. It might be lying still in her hand now, but it was too easy for him to imagine what would happen if she left him alone with it. He pictured it rushing towards him, its eyes glowing crazily and its jaws working like a jackhammer.
His only reply was a doomed stare.
"Well, then you'd better get ready for bed," she snapped. She got up and hobbled away, still holding the clown.
Carlos took as long as possible, trying to delay bedtime as long as possible. Grandma was going to insist on putting that clown in his room, he just knew it.
"Carlos? Aren't you done yet?"
"Hold on! I still have to brush my teeth!" Normally he hated brushing his teeth, but tonight it was a few minutes he didn't have to spend with the clown. He wondered how he could get rid of it. If he touched it, it would bite him. Maybe he could bundle it in a blanket and drop it out the window.
And maybe it would find its way back inside, muddy, scratched, and furious.
He shuffled down the hallway to Grandma's guest bedroom, where all his things had already been unpacked. Sure enough, the hated night-light was sitting on the dresser. Its eyes and teeth glowed with insane light – Don't mind me, Carlos! it seemed to be saying. I'm just here to eat you, that's all. Want me to make you a couple of balloon animals before you go?
Carlos longed to pick it up and throw it out the window. But it would bite.
He sat down on the bed, watching the clown and thinking. Maybe he could yank out the power cord... that should give him enough time to pull away if the clown attacked. He looked at the window, wondering how hard it would be to open it and get the screen off.
There was a faint click from across the room.
He looked back at the clown – and jumped. The color of its eyes had changed, from off-white to a pale yellow. But that wasn't the worst part.
Grandma had put the clown on the right side of the dresser, where it was in the corner of the room. Now it was in the middle of the dresser.
The power cord dangled down like a tail.
He almost screamed for Grandma – but stopped himself. Grandma loved clowns; she'd never believe that the night-light was out to get him. And Mom and Dad were too far away to help. He was on his own.
His eyes darted around the room, frantically searching for anything he could use as a weapon – a baseball bat, a hockey stick, something, anything. But would a stick or a bat be of any use? You needed silver for werewolves, and garlic for vampires – but what did you use to ward off clowns?
There was no weapon in sight – the best he could do was throw his shoes at it. And now it was too close to the door for him to escape.
He looked up at the clown again. The yellow of its eyes and teeth had deepened to the color of egg yolks, and it was perched on the edge of the dresser.
Carlos wondered what would be left of him in the morning. A withered husk, like something from a mummy movie? A few scattered bones, picked clean of meat? Or would Grandma find nothing at all? "I don't know what happened," she'd tell Mom and Dad, scratching her head. "He just took off in the middle of the night."
"I'm not afraid of you," he whispered. "I'm not afraid of you."
The clown's grin widened.
"I'm not afraid of you! Go away!"
Something shifted under Carlos' bed – something big.
A green, muscular hand with gnarled claws reached up from under his bed and knocked on the bedpost. "Hey, kid! Keep it down up there, will ya?"
There was a muffled thump from across the room. The clown was lying facedown on the carpet, a deep orange glow from its face surrounding its head like a hellish halo. Carlos knew the next time he looked, the clown would be upright.
Maybe there was something under the bed he could use, but the monster was there too. Or... did monsters get along with clowns? They shouldn't. Nothing got along with clowns, except Grandma.
He tried to peek over the edge.
There was a rattle from across the room.
Carlos looked up. The clown was indeed upright, and even closer than before. Its eyes and teeth had deepened to a deep, bloody crimson, and it grinned up at Carlos with a murderous, gleeful smile.
Carlos didn't know how the clown would climb the bed, but he didn't want to find out.
Normally he wouldn't think of asking the monster under his bed for help, but right now it was the least murderous thing in the room.
"Hello? Monster?" He knocked on the bedpost. "Are you still there?"
There was no reply. Carlos knocked harder.
"Psst! Hey! Monster!"
Something shifted under the bed. A luminous blue eye on a long stalk snaked out from under the bed and rose until it was level with Carlos' face. "Whaddya want?"
"There's a clown trying to eat me!"
A moment's silence. "What about it?"
"How do I make it stop?"
The blue eye blinked. "If I tell you, will you get me the rest of your grandma's macaroni and cheese? Haven't had that in a while..."
"Yes! Just tell me!"
"Ya gotta laugh at 'im!" The eye stalk retracted.
"But clowns like-" He stopped. Come to think of it, he'd never met anyone who thought clowns were funny. Even Grandma thought they were just cute and cuddly.
A pair of glowing red eyes rose up over the foot of the bed, followed by those horrible red teeth. Carlos pulled away, huddling against his pillow.
The clown floated forward, perching on the edge of the bed. Its teeth were parted slightly, as if in anticipation of that first bite.
Carlos had never seen anything less funny, but he had no other choice.
"Ha," he managed. "Ha, ha."
The clown's eyes seemed to widen slightly. At least it didn't move further forward.
"Ha, ha. Ha!"
Carlos thought he saw the clown flinch. He laughed harder, forcing as much humor as he could into his voice, not caring if Grandma heard him. There was a harsh whine, and the clown toppled over backwards.
It was the first thing the clown had done that Carlos found genuinely funny. He broke into real laughter. The clown's whine became increasingly shrill, the glow from its face fading from that terrifying red to orange and finally yellow.
Carlos could hear footsteps coming down the hall – he must have awakened Grandma. He had to finish this now, or Grandma might give the clown time to recover.
He forced himself to laugh until his stomach hurt. The door swung open.
"Carlos! What on-"
The clown gave one final shriek and erupted into flames. Grandma stared at wide-eyed for a moment, then dashed out again. Carlos sat in the middle of the bed, watching the clown's features bubble and melt into one another. He could hear water running nearby – Grandma must be trying to fill a bucket.
He knew he should be afraid of the fire, but for some reason, he wasn't. Watching the plastic bubble and melt was oddly relaxing. The flames flickered, red and yellow and orange, all the colors of the clown's eyes-
What was he doing? The fire came from the clown. He couldn't relax. The clown had failed to eat him, so now it was trying another way to kill him. He leaped out of bed and ran for the door.
He escaped just in time to see Grandma fling the bucket.
Carlos didn't leave his room until he heard Mom and Dad coming up the driveway – it was the only clown-free space in the house.
There was nothing left of the clown but a scorch mark and the power cord, curled up on the carpet like the tail of a dead scorpion. Carols was careful not to touch it. He had a feeling it might still have some venom left.
While Mom and Grandma were chatting, Carlos crept into the kitchen and took the metal pan of macaroni and cheese out of the refrigerator. He discarded the tinfoil and made his way upstairs.
He knelt down and peeked under the bed. There was nothing green and scaly there, only a couple of old boxes. Carlos wasn't surprised. Monsters only came alive at night.
"Carlos!" Mom called from downstairs. "Come on! We're leaving!"
He slid the pan underneath the bed, got up, and hurried back downstairs.