Smile A Little Smile For Me
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ASHEN CHAPEL!



Have you, dear reader, ever heard these words at some forgotten point in your life? Perhaps whispered beside a campfire's glow or muttered from the mouth of a drunken drifter? Or from a shrieking voice outside your bedroom window, as so many others have reported? Likely in the dead of night, in any case, for that is the time when even the most sane minds are given to the consideration of such things.

You may recall, fair reader, the tale of a town, one single town, which exists in every state in the West. Every state at once. It does not appear on any map, as such a peculiarity would naturally be beyond the skill of any cartographer. As the saying goes, you don't find Ashen Chappel—Ashen Chappel finds you. And what a despicable depository of the arcane a body might find it to be!

Those planning a trip there may pack lightly, as there are only two types of weather: dust and mud, which also happen to be the primary features of the landscape. No more scenic are the tumbledown businesses packed tight along the thoroughfare, the whole lot threatening to fall like a line of dominoes should a weaker one finally give in to the inevitable.

Perched atop a sheer cliff at the far end of town is Ashen Chapel’s namesake, a frantic congregation of such deathly angles and violent protrusions that any semblance of religiosity in its appearance is borne solely from the austerity of its configuration. The once-been church, long deposed of its original purpose, looms like a skeletal pastor, its walls worn so slant that it peeked over the cliff's edge as if to gain a better vantage on its flock below. For all its wretched features, most striking of all was the stark pallor of its every surface, a splintering wood of such sickly stock as can only come from the trees of Blight Hill whereon the building stands.

But the building is not abandoned. Not any longer, at any rate. Despite the lack of any discernible renovation to the crumbling structure, a growing number of visitors have been cramming themselves inside. When no more bodies can be squeezed through the double-doored threshold, those outside cling with bleeding hands to the splinters and shards that once were windows.

And that’s just for the matinee.

Folks say three young boys found him while writing obscenities on the church walls. He was a curious sight, his bare feet planted on the pulpit like a soapbox, reciting his spiel for empty pews, but sakes, the man was funny! When those boys came home to their mothers, they were grinning like you’ve never seen. Smiles so bright nobody could even look at them straight. Not even the doctors.

The streets of Ashen Chapel may curve and crook and fold in on themselves beyond distances fathomable to the human mind, but a small town is a small town. Word gets around. You won’t see Chucky Chortles’ Goodtime Extra advertised on any billboard or flashing marquee. Nowadays the weekly processions of dazed masses up through Main Street and along the slopes of Blight Hill are enough to pique the curiosity of any soul.

Even if they may not be able to tell you where he came from or when he blew into town, everyone will say Chucky Chortles is a real bang-up guy. A sure charming fellow. A model citizen. Opens and closes his mouth when he speaks. Stands upright on two legs and uses his feet to walk, exactly the way god intended. They’ll say his best feature is his smile. If a mouth is only as pretty as its teeth, then Chucky’s mouth gets a little prettier every day.

Don’t ask anyone to repeat his jokes, though. Nobody can tell them like old Chuck. No point in trying.
There’s always tension before the Goodtime Extra begins. Dead silence. Nervous glances. Plus everyone’s sweaty from all the crowds and candles. On the particular occasion of this account, the anticipation is thricefold. Everyone can feel it. Scattered gasps and chokes break through the usual quiet, though whether they be from anticipation or the crush of the overstuffed audience is anyone’s guess.

Chucky Chortles steps into a beam of moonlight and everyone loses their loving shit.

“Thank you,” he pleads. His voice crackles like the final gasp of a hanged man. “Thank you one and all. Ladies, gentlemen, and tender ones, this the time for the Goodtime Extra. Be glad, for this is the time when jokes will happen.”

Another surge of ecstasy. One rooftop onlooker gets so caught up in the moment that he slips from his perch and falls through a hole, but the throng beneath him is so tight that nobody is knocked off their feet when he lands. Nobody even minds. Chucky just grins prettier.

“For the first joke, which one is to sublime into comedy?”

There is no shortage of volunteers.

“Very well.”

Chucky extends his hand to a woman at the front of the crowd. She giggles and carefully removes her bonnet so as to ensure no impediment to the humor nor the hammer. So strong is the hilarity that she can barely maintain her composure.

“Name?” Chucky asks her.

“Agatha Pierce,” she answers.

“You have lied to me,” says Chucky, shaking his head. “Your name is Warmbutter Stink-of-Feces.”
He has to lift his hand to the audience to stop the applause.

“Your joke is thus, Miss Warmbutter,” he resumes, holding the hammer within inches of her right ear. “Why are you full of ants?”

He draws the hammer back.

“I don’t know, Chucky. Why am I full of ants?”

He brings the hammer to her ear. Her body goes rigid. Hairline cracks shoot across her face and cascade down her body and clothes.

“Because you’re not full of uncles!”

Pieces of Agatha’s face loosen and fall like shards of broken ceramic. Streams of black winged ants spill from every crack and crevice. Each one has a human face, the face of someone’s aunt, and they are all laughing. Clouds of them drift out the open windows and disappear into the starless night. Many others are trampled underfoot. The audience’s laughter lasts hours.

“Okay next joke!” Chucky announces. The silence is instantaneous. “This joke is very special, very funny. On whom will it be?”

“This joke will be on you, cruel comedian!” proclaims a voice from above.

Suddenly, a thunderous CRASH! Dust and nails and scraps of wood rain down on the crowd as a dark figure bounds from the rafters, a tattered black cape flowing in ribbons at its back. Its feet alight the candle-covered tabernacle, disturbing not a single flame by a flicker. The mysterious man, clad in black damask and a black mask, raises an ebony pistol to the comedian. The crowd appears equal parts flummoxed and fascinated.

“You will cease your sadistic show succinctly,” says the stranger, “else I will be forced to fire fast and fierce as a frenchman can faire des galipette!”

Chucky Chortles looks at the stranger, then looks at the audience, then looks at something written on the palm of his hand.

“Okay, next joke!” he says.

BANG! goes the stranger’s ebony gun.

BANG! goes the stranger’s ivory gun, freshly unholstered.

“No more jokes!” the stranger yells. “No more warning shots, either! I’ve sworn to smite servants to insanity such as you, sir, and I have no inclination toward tergiversation. I will see you out of this town by coach or by coffin!”

Chortles gives his hand a few more frantic glances.

“Name?”

The masked stranger smirks.

“I will tell you, though you might not believe what I say. Tales of my life are only rivaled by tales of my death. However! For you, vaudevillian villain, I shall rise from my grave to send you to yours!”

The black mask is torn aside with a flourish. The gathered masses gasp in recognition—though there is little doubt our loyal readers already deduced our hero’s identity much earlier with the appearance of his trademark pistols Fear and Hope.

“Cole Slaw!” screams Chucky Chortles, recoiling.

“So they call me. There was a time I begrudged the moniker, though I admit I have acquiesced to the titular appurtenance for such occasions as this, occasions when I must step outside laws of men to deal with that which is outside the laws of nature.”

“Come now Mister Slaw, can we not make Goodtimes?” says Chortles, recovering the glint in his teeth. “Goodtimes and jokes? Maybe you can join in making… laugh?”

The audience members at the front of the crowd break into sickening guffaws that ripple and spread through the rest of the multitudes. One by one they advance toward the tabernacle where Cole is perched. An old man, a grandfather, laughingly slips to the floor, his merriment by no means diminished as those behind him trod forward across his body.

“I fear neither the puppeteer nor his puppets,” Cole declares. “You stand before me, a being of flesh and blood, so let’s see if Fear may gain purchase on you!

The sights of Slaw’s black flint found Chortles’ face in the span of a moment. The sound of the gunshot peals through the house of worship like a church bell. All eyes are drawn to Chucky Chortles’ face, his beautiful face, and the silver bullet clamped between his perfect pretty teeth.

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