Bone Chill of a Too-Wide Smile

unmade bed

Barclay frowned at the twinkle in Ophelia’s eyes as she tucked a large, freshly laundered quilt around his shoulders.

“The other staff and I have arranged a treat for you today, sir,” she said. “To cheer you up.”

“Careful hands, Ophelia! You’ll break me.”

She sighed. “Beggin’ your pardon, sir, but if your insides were really glass…”

“Are glass,” he corrected.

She looked bound to sigh again but continued, “…then my hands should do you no harm. Or do you not trust me with the fine china anymore?”

China, windows, everything. Himself. He stared at the ceiling, feeling heavy with the weight of fragility and being doubted. The doctors called his condition glass delusion.

“It’s been two weeks, sir. People’s hearts break all the time, but they don’t mean literally.”

“Enough, Ophelia.”

Her impenetrable round face crinkled. Barclay braced himself for more affected pleasantry.

“You’ve made yourself quite the captive audience, so we hired a performer to lift your spirits. Jiala the jester!”

He hoped his face turned a sickly green to match his grimace and clash against the quilt’s emerald diamond shapes alternating with black.

She shuffled across the carpet to the bedroom door. “I know you like your privacy, so I’ll let him in and leave you to your entertainments.”

He clenched his teeth and awaited the inevitable.

A few minutes later the door burst back open, and Jiala the jester cartwheeled in on one hand. His other held a scepter with a small replica jester’s head on it, complete with matching hat and festooned stick. Barclay sneered as Jiala hopped to the door and closed it. This newcomer’s emerald and ebon checkers, from tights to cap, blended in so well with the quilt that one could hardly tell where the bed ended and the fool began.

“For your malady.” The jester waggled his scepter toward Barclay, who did his best to ignore it. “Behold, laughter’s the prescription!” He spun his stick like a baton and whirled on one heel. “Come, feel the warmth of your meat contracting, the flow of your humor.”

Between the blurring colors and jangling bells, Barclay stiffened. One clumsy move could shatter him! He shook his head. “Fool, no more, please. I dislike…” All of this? He settled on, “…your bells. They sound too much like broken glass.”

Jiala froze, bells tinkling softly, pitifully. “You find me dull,” he whispered.

“Dull’s a strong word to describe a man clad in checkers and patchwork. But unsuccessful, perhaps.”

“Says the one with melancholy,” the other muttered.

Barclay growled. “Jester, take your motley and go dance for your fellow fools.”

Jiala made eye contact, and Barclay flinched. All sensation fell away but discomfort: stomach clench of a malevolent gaze, bone chill of a too-wide smile. More visceral than a person with insides of glass should feel, and that bothered him most of all.

The jester made a point of passing near him as he headed toward the door. Barclay’s gaze fell upon the scepter, then he clutched his chest, for he beheld his own head in miniature atop the stick! His brown eyes peered from beneath the matching green and black fool’s hat, and his mouth rested above the white ruff. The lips suddenly split into a grin—his own visage, in on some sick joke—and again that cutting chill overwhelmed him. The real him. The room seemed to tilt.

“Not made of glass after all, eh?” the jester called over his shoulder. “Wooden, though.” He chuckled, a sinister rumble that clashed with his bells. “Dull.” He waggled the scepter once more before disappearing through the doorway.

Barclay lay enshrouded in his checkered patchwork. Inert, stick-stuck. He’d been right, in a way, not quite glass but not crazy. Organic enough to feel that lurch from Jiala’s eye contact, yet an accessory in the world. Wooden. However, the validation of his own sanity—by a fool, no less, in such an unwelcome format—snapped him. He closed his eyes with a too-wide smile and sank deep into scepterhood.

When Ophelia came to check on him, she dropped the tea tray in a tinkling crash, for one couldn’t tell where Barclay had ended and the motley began.

Copyright 2019 Katherine Quevedo

“Bone Chill of a Too-Wide Smile” first appeared in Thrilling Words.

Photo by Harris Ananiadis on Unsplash

Story notes

The title for this story popped into my head one day, and I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. Then I considered using it to explore my longtime fascination with court jester characters. I’d also been reading about glass delusion, in which someone believes their body is made of glass, and thinking about rigidity, so I combined all these thoughts to see what mischief I could get into on the page.

Katherine Quevedo

Katherine Quevedo was born and raised just outside of Portland, Oregon, where she works as an analyst and lives with her husband and two sons. Her fiction has appeared in Fireside Magazine, Best Indie Speculative Fiction Vol. III and IV, Factor Four Magazine, Triangulation: Habitats, Frost Zone Zine, Wyngraf, and elsewhere. When she isn't writing, she enjoys watching movies, singing, playing old-school video games, belly dancing, and making spreadsheets. Find her at www.katherinequevedo.com.

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