It should have been a quiet, slightly dull night, one well worth making $7 an hour. Noreen had never babysat for the Culberts before, but she knew them from church, and they had always seemed pleasant enough. Their son, Nate, was a cheerful baby, and at nine months old, he was old enough to be fun while not young enough to be a huge amount of trouble. At any rate, Noreen would only stay with him for six hours, and for most of those hours, Nate would be sleeping. It was an easy way to earn a little money… or so she had anticipated.1

What she hadn't counted on was Nate's nursery… or more specifically, the clowns.2

*****************************************************3

Noreen pushed a strand of dark hair behind her ear, adjusting her backpack on her shoulders as she reached to ring the doorbell of the Culberts' house. This isn't exactly something I can do all the time, she thought, but hey, it'll be brainless, and the pay's better than if I was working fast food. Not to mention tax free.4

She waited at the door as she heard footsteps approaching, and Holly Culbert's smile greeted her. She was a nice-enough-looking woman, blonde and in her mid 30's, as was Brett Culbert. Nate was their first child, Noreen knew, but judging from their clear affection for him, probably not their last.5

"Noreen, hello. How are you doing?"6

"Fine, Mrs. Culbert," Noreen replied, following her inside as she gestured for her to do so.7

"You can call me Holly, Noreen, and you can call Brett by his first name too. You'll make us feel old," Mrs. Culbert- Holly- smiled.8

"All right- Holly," Noreen said.9

"I'm very thankful you could be here- I know it's short notice, but Brett and I rarely get any time to ourselves anymore after Nate," she said apologetically as they walked down the short entrance hallway. "You know how it is. We just thought if we could get anyone to agree- it's been so long since we had a night out together. This is only the third time we had someone other than ourselves stay with Nate, and the other two times we left him at my mother's house. But she's away this weekend, and-" she held out her hands. "I hope you don't mind, Noreen- I'd hate to interrupt plans of yours."10

"No, it's okay," Noreen assured her as they turned to the door of the living room. "I didn't have plans. And to be honest, I could use a little money. No one's hiring this time of the year."11

"Are you sure your parents won't mind you getting back so late?" Holly pressed. "We could return a little earlier than midnight if it's a problem."12

"No, it's okay," Noreen repeated, surprised by the eagerness Holly had to not inconvenience her. "I just turned 18- even if they told me to come home, I wouldn't have to listen."13

"I just don't want this to be trouble for you," Holly repeated, pausing with her hand on the living room doorknob.14

"It's fine," Noreen repeated, beginning to feel like a broken record. 15

"If you're sure…" Holly said doubtfully, and Noreen wondered at her near obsessive concern as she finally opened the living room door. Nate was standing by the coffee table with the help of his walker, blonde curls askew as usual. Brett Culbert sat beside him, looking out of place in his dressy clothes while surrounded by Nate and his toys.16

"Hello, Noreen," he said, and she smiled and repeated his greetings. "Nate's in a chattery mood at the moment- he ought to go right to you. He's never been one to be shy with people."17

Noreen smiled again, squatting down to Nate's level. He looked at her with wide eyes.18

"Hi, Nate," Noreen said, making her voice high and sweet. "Remember me? I'm Noreen from church- I help out in the nursery sometimes. We're gonna have fun, huh?"19

She gently stroked his soft curls. Nate looked at her for a moment, then grinned toothlessly. His parents smiled at that, even Holly.20

"There shouldn't be any problems- he seems to like you well enough," Brett said.21

"Nate's a good baby," Holly agreed. "Noreen, he's already been fed, but if he's hungry later his milk is in the fridge. Diapers are all about the house should be need them. His room is the last one on the left in the hall-and here's one of the baby monitors," she said, picking up a white device from the end of the couch and holding it up. "We turn these on when Nate goes to sleep, so we can hear him if he wakes up. The other is in his room on the nightstand. He usually goes to bed around 8:30, but don't worry if he goes to sleep before or after. Help yourself to whatever you want to eat. Oh, and by the way, should anything happen, there are numbers on the fridge for our cell phone, the doctor, police, and firemen."22

"I'm sure everything will be fine," Noreen said reassuringly. 23

"Well we're off then," Brett said. "We'll be back around midnight, but we'll let you know if it's going to be any later than that."24

"All right," Noreen said. "Have fun."25

They really do need to get out more, she thought in amusement as she picked up Nate from his walker, watching the Culberts exit. They're so funny to worry so much. They're only going to be gone for six hours. What could really go so wrong in six hours?26

*******************************************************************27

Everything went smoothly, as easily as Noreen had imagined, until it was time for Nate to sleep at 8:30. Up until that point she had played with him, changed him once, and generally kept him busy and happy. It was easy enough- Nate was a happy baby, curious about everything. Around 8 she had started to wind him down in preparation for bed, talking more softly, holding him, and showing him pictures in books. Her tactic had worked, and by 8:30 Nate could barely keep his eyes open.28

Noreen lifted him into her arms, carrying him to the door Holly had indicated to be the one to his nursery. As she flicked on the light switch to his room, preparing to see it for the first time since she'd arrived, she froze, momentarily unable to breathe.29

Clowns… Nate's room was decked out in clowns. Wallpaper and mobile, crib and blanket, all were decorated with the white-faced, red-nosed figures. There were glass clown figures on the shelf near his bed, and lying inside Nate's crib was a stuffed clown doll with bright orange hair and black button eyes. Clearly this was the theme of Nate's nursery.30

Who would make THAT a kid's main decoration? Noreen thought shakily. That's a good way to make them grow up to be a psychopath!31

For as long as she could remember, Noreen had hated clowns. She didn't know if there was a real reason for it- a childhood scare, a scary movie-but whatever the case, everything about clowns, whether inanimate or alive, chilled her. Their pasty faces, surely slimy to the touch, their unnatural hair and wild clothes, their huge painted grins, so wide and strange it always made Noreen think they were preparing to eat her… 32

It disturbed her to think who would willingly make themselves up in such a way. What sort of person would find that amusing? The nursery adornments made her think twice about her previous judgment of the Culberts. If they liked clowns enough to decorate their kid's nursery with them, what did that say about them?33

Oh, come on, Noreen! She told herself sharply, you're being silly. Lots of people like clowns- god knows why- that doesn't mean they're deranged or devious. They won't hurt you- at least they aren't real, like the ones in circuses. It's just figures- figures and pictures.34

Still, she hesitated for several more seconds, breathing in slowly before she carried the baby to his crib. As she drew back his blanket- covered with small clowns, of course, each holding a brightly colored balloon- she shuddered slightly. Even touching the images of clowns on the blanket gave her an irrational moment of panic.35

Stop it, Noreen- just put him in bed. The sooner you do, the sooner you can get out of this stupid room. You don't' have to come in here all night unless he wakes up.36

She prayed Nate would have a good restful sleep. As she gingerly pulled the blanket up to his shoulders, she shuddered again- the stupid clown doll seemed to be watching her. Not staring blankly, lifelessly, as dolls should- but watching her, with a glinting in his button eye…37

He's not watching you, Noreen! She told herself fiercely. This is a doll you're talking about.38

But as she flicked on the baby monitor on Nate's nightstand, she had an eerie, prickly feeling that she was being watched… she could feel goosebumps on her arms as she whirled around, only to see nothing- nothing but the clowns on the wall, the crib, the- everything…39

Stop it, Noreen… it's okay.40

She walked out the room quickly, feeling almost light-headed with relief when the nursery door was safely shut, and she was on the other side of it. Now that she was out of the room- away from the clowns- she could almost laugh at herself- almost.41

Going back to the living room, she sat down on the Culberts' couch, rifling through her backpack. She had a choice between reading her book- The Shining, by Stephen King- doing calculus homework, or watching TV.42

That was an easy choice. Alone in the house (well except for Nate, who hardly counted since he was nine months old and asleep), and already spooked from the clown room, reading Stephen King wasn't' such a good plan. And statistics versus TV? No contest.43

Noreen flicked on the TV, settling in for a rerun of Seinfeld as she brought the baby monitor closer to her. A few hours of Kramer and other comic TV characters should pass the time before the Culberts came back.44

Perhaps an hour had passed before Noreen realized what she was hearing- or rather, what she was not hearing. The monitor was very quiet… she could hear nothing in it. Not even the sound of Nate breathing.45

Frowning, she turned down the TV volume, but it didn't matter- still she heard nothing from the other side of the monitor- no indications she had even turned it on.46

But she had turned it on- she knew she had. Then why couldn't she hear the baby breathing, or moving around in his sleep? Was the battery low?47

She glanced at the monitor beside her again, but no, she could see that the red light was on. Then what was going on- why didn't' she hear anything?48

Noreen held the monitor up to her ear, listening closely, even turning it up to top volume… but all she heard was the static sounds of the reception.49

Her heart began to pound as she held the monitor tighter in her hand. What if she couldn't hear Nate breathing because he wasn't breathing? What if something had happened, what if the50

(clowns)51

What if they baby was hurt, or-52

Noreen didn't even know what to think. She could feel herself beginning to panic, her breathing coming faster. If something had happened to Nate as she sat there, watching TV… oh god…53

I've got to check on him- I have to make sure everything's-54

She stood up quickly, going to the living room door. She had almost reached Nate's room when thoughts of the clowns made her pause. She was going to have to go back in that horrible nursery, with all those awful clowns…55

What are you thinking, Noreen? She said to herself sharply. Are you really thinking of not checking on him because of the freaking clowns? What is your problem?56

But Noreen knew what her problem was- the clown's staring black eyes, their hungry red grins-57

Stop it! Stop it!58

She pushed open the nursery door, deliberately forcing herself to look straight ahead, only at Nate in his crib. Still her eyes seemed assaulted by the sight of the clowns grinning up at her from the dancing mobile, the crib and blanket, the doll… most of all, that stupid stuffed clown doll.59

Noreen hurried to the crib, her breath ragged, her chest and throat seeming to fill with a cold sensation that made it hard to think, to move. Her hands were shaking as she peered anxiously down at Nate, who was still sleeping motionless on his back.60

She could not hear him breathing, and for a moment she nearly screamed… but then she saw his small chest rise and fall, and she felt her shoulders relax as she sighed in relief. He was alive… why hadn't she heard him then?61

Maybe the monitor was too far away. Noreen picked it up, placed in directly beside Nate in his crib. As she started to take her hand away, her wrist brushed the red shoe of the clown doll at the top of Nate's crib, by his pillow. Her hand jerked back reflexively, and then she stared in shocked horror- for when she had put Nate to bed, the clown doll had been at the other end of the crib, by his feet.62

For a moment she could only stand there rigidly, terror rising in her throat, thick, choking. The clown doll's eyes seemed to twinkle back at her merrily- was it smiling? Had she just seen its lips move?63

Stop it, Noreen! You must be wrong. Nate didn't move the clown- and it didn't move on its own. Of course it didn't.64

It had to have been already there, at the end of the crib, and Noreen had just forgotten. That was all there was to it.65

Still, even as she reasoned with herself, Noreen could have sworn she had been right before, that the clown truly had been at the other end of the crib. And once again she felt a chill of apprehension ripple down her spine, as though a hundred eyes were watching her… clown eyes…66

She turned around with a gasp, but once again there was nothing, only the inane, one-dimensional painted gazes of all the clowns. 67

Surely, once again, they were not really watching her, she reasoned. There were just so many eyes that it felt like they were.68

How did poor little Nate ever sleep in this room? Noreen wondered, shaking her head.69

She started to walk quickly to the nursery door, but froze suddenly, her breath cutting off. From the corner of her eye, she had seen something move… one of the clown figures on the shelf…70

She turned around quickly, feeling how fast her heart was pounding, the steady pulsing in her head and arms and chest with a pressure that made it hard to move. They couldn't- clowns weren't supposed to move, at least, not glass ones, or stuffed ones. 71

But as she forced herself to scan the shelf of clown figurines, then the wall and floor around them, she had to admit to herself that they were all still, inanimate- which only made sense, of course.72

Clowns don't move- at least these don't. Get a grip, Noreen- you're just freaked because there are clowns at all. They didn't move. You just imagined it.73

But no matter what Noreen told herself, as she left the room, she was unable to shake off the unsettling feeling that all the clowns were watching her, leering at her… and here she was, leaving Nate alone in there with them, a baby…74

Of course you are, Noreen- it's his nursery. He certainly doesn't seem to mind it.75

But he was sleeping… he didn't see the clowns move when he was sleeping…76

They don't move, that's just your freaking imagination! Chill out- it's almost ten, you still have two hours left. If you're freaked out the whole time… this is pathetic. Eighteen and afraid to babysit.77

She settled herself down on the couch again, checking the baby monitor. Yep, she could hear Nate's slow, soft breathing now- it was fine. Everything was fine.78

She turned the channel of the TV, seeing that That 70's Show was on. Perfect- enough Fez/Michael/Jackie stupidity should distract her.79

But even twenty minutes into the episode, Noreen's shoulders were tense, and she realized she kept glancing at the baby monitor… she was listening to it more than the TV.80

Listening for what? She tried to tell herself it was Nate's breathing, or rather, should he stop breathing… but really, she suspected it was the clowns. She was waiting for them to move again, waiting for them to-81

Stop it, the clowns didn't move, you're being silly-82

Then why was she unable to think of anything else? Why had such dread came over her, heavy and dense as a black cloud- why was she afraid to stop listening to the baby monitor?83

Another hour passed before she heard it. A low chuckle… very self-satisfied, very malevolent…84

Noreen looked at the TV, but That 70's Show was on again, and the noise had not come from any of the characters, not even Red. No… it had sounded closer, and yet further away. It had sounded like it was coming from the 85

(baby monitor)86

No, of course it wasn't. There was no one in the room with Nate to chuckle like that, and Nate certainly hadn't done so himself. No, of course Noreen was imagining things again, there was no one in the nursery-87

(except the clowns)88

Now this is ridiculous- the clowns are pictures, pictures and glass and stuffed bags of cloth. When they day comes that you think your wallpaper is talking to you, then you'll know you're crazy!89

(But what if the wallpaper had eyes, hundreds of eyes staring at you… and what if it could move, what if-)90

Stop it! Noreen lectured herself ferociously. The wall is not staring at you- nothing was, even the clowns.91

But even as she glanced at the baby monitor again, still seeking the reassuring sound of Nate's breathing, she heard it again… 92

another low cackle. Noreen felt a slow shiver run through her body, from neck to spine, all the way down to her toes… for surely she had not imagined that, not that time.93

Then a voice came, crackling, taunting, the tone worse than the original laugh.94

"Noreen…. Noreen…"95

Every pore of her body felt like it had been turned to stone. She sat unmoving, unblinking, scarcely breathing as the baby monitor's static crackled beside her.96

It had said her name… she knew she had not imagined that. She knew…97

They knew her name, who she was… they knew she was there…98

Who, Noreen? Who's up there? Who's with Nate, poor little Nate, who-99

The clowns… Noreen knew it was the clowns. They had seen her, knew her now… and now they wanted her, they wanted to draw her in, so they could-100

Could what?101

But Noreen didn't know… she only held the icy dread of it…102

Whatever it was, they were using Nate to entrap her. They wanted to lure her up there, wanted to catch her…103

"Noreen…" the voice rasped again, "Noree-een…"104

She wanted to run, to flee the Culberts and their baby and never return… she wanted to hide, to cower shaking in a dark closet where no one would find her, not even the clowns. She wanted to do anything- anything- but cower shaking on the couch as the voice rasped across the baby monitor… anything but enter that nursery to check on the baby.105

But she was the babysitter… what if the clowns did something to Nate, what if he died, because Noreen ignored their taunts? She couldn't just sit there- she had to do something. There was still an hour left before the Culberts came back- and anything could happen in an hour…106

You can't go in there- the clowns- the clowns- oh shit, what are you going to do, Noreen, what the hell have you gotten yourself into?107

Still she could hear the voices- for now there was more, now there were three or four, all speaking at once, repeating her name, louder, faster.108

"Noreen… Noreen… Nor-ee-een…"109

******************************************************110

When the Culberts first stepped through their front door, they knew immediately that something was wrong. They could hear muffled but definite scratching, scraping, fast and rapid, coming from somewhere down the hall… and even louder, the sound of Nate's cries.111

"Oh god," Holly said, shocked and horrified. "What's that noise? Is there someone in the house? Where is Noreen- what-"112

Her husband ran ahead of her, intending to go straight to the nursery… and his face tightened as he drew closer, realizing that nursery was where the odd scraping noise seemed to be coming from…113

"Noreen?" Holly called shakily as she followed her husband, her voice trembling, eyes darting about. "Noreen- Noreen, where are you?"114

"Shh," Brett cautioned, pausing outside the nursery door. The tension was audible in his voice, visible in his posture. "If there's someone in there, don't alert him to the fact that we're here-"115

"But Noreen- where is Noreen-"116

"Shh!" Brett said more forcefully, and his wife fell silent. Her eyes were huge, and she was beginning to shiver as the fierce scraping noise continued, as her child's cries entered her ears and tormented her…117

With a sudden swift movement, Brett turned the doorknob, pushing open the door. It took a moment for their eyes to adjust to the room's dimness, but the Mickey Mouse nightlight soon provided all the illumination they needed to see inside.118

In the white crib, Nate was lying on his back, his arms waving frantically as he cried, his face scrunched and slick with tears. All around him were the shambles of his carefully decorated nursery…119

The clown doll in his crib had been ripped apart, its limbs in separate pieces, stuffing all around the interior. Its button eyes were beside the head, having also been torn off. The jaunty clown mobile had also been destroyed, the cloth clown figures twisted and broken on the floor… the glass figurines on the shelf had all been broken, lay in shards on the floor. The blanket covering Nate had been cut into shreds, was also in strips on the nursery floor…120

But most shocking of all was the painting of the clown on Nate's crib, the clowns all over the wallpaper. Most of them had been scratched off, their faces a blank, rough space of emptiness… and on the far side of the nursery, there stood Noreen, eyes wild, movements jerky, frantic, as she scraped at the wallpaper clowns with a sharp pair of scissors, scratching off the clown's faces…121

Holly cried out in stunned dismay as she to the crib, taking her baby up into her arms and clutching him against her protectively. Brett automatically moved himself in front of his wife and child, blocking them from reach of Noreen and her scissors. His mouth was dry, his heart pulsing rapidly- was this the same guileless girl he had left in care of his child only hours before- the girl who sang in their church choir, volunteered in the children's nursery?122

"Noreen!" he cried, his voice sharp and yet clearly afraid. "Noreen, what is going on?"123

Noreen turned her head sharply, sucking in her breath, and the very lack of sane reasoning in her eyes made rigid Brett's spine. She did not smile, did not change her aggressive stance as she spoke, but there was relief in her tone.124

"Their eyes are gone now," she rasped. "They can't look at me again… can't speak to me with those awful red lips…"125

"What are you talking about, Noreen?" Brett asked quietly, trying to keep still, not frighten her with any sudden movements. "Why would you do this to Nate's room?"126

Noreen's chest was rising and falling in hitched intakes of breath, and she seemed on the verge of tears as she answered- or was it laughter, mad, terrible laughter?127

"Clowns," she breathed, her voice shuddery. "Clowns…"128

As Brett kept his distance, talking to her softly, he locked eyes with his wife, still standing apart with the baby, whose sobs were tapering off. Understanding, she began to move slowly toward the door, intending to make a phone call, if not several. The only thing she couldn't decide was whether to call Noreen's parents, the police, or a mental institution.129

On the wall, the remaining unmarred clown faces seemed to stand out all the more next to the damaged ones, their red painted smiles all the wider… the broken figurines seemed to glisten in the dimly lit room. And in the nearly empty crib, the button clown eyes gleamed with what seemed an intelligence beyond the imagination.130