Johny wiped sweat from his brow. Perhaps this batch would be it? Just a little more heat. After the strange liquid came to a boil, he pulled it from the stove and pushed it into the ice box. “Don’t fall.” He whispered over and over again as he cleaned up the barn he used as a workshop. He had been trying to make a horse hoof free gelatin for the past ten years. His first experiments were burned into the barn floor. One in particular had melted through metal pot and left a large hole that took him weeks to carefully scoop out the liquid with a glass cup. It was the only thing that held it without melting. Now it was just a hole that threatened to trip him is he wasn’t paying attention.
He paused from his cleaning and gave ThunderCleft a pat. ThunderCleft was an old race horse, but he was able to save him from the gelatin factories of Gel’no. He had purchased the barn himself with the proceeds from his attraction. His parents had been against the purchase, but what was a single horse and a run down barn compared to what they got on a daily basis.
ThunderCleft pawed at the ground as Johny gave him one last pat and a kiss on his velvety muzzle. “I’ll be back tonight with popcorn,” the horse huffed, “Fine, also a caramel apple. It’s not good for you, but I’ll let it slide. You’re too old for it to matter.”
He double checked that his ice box was properly hidden under a couple bales of hay. Once satisfied, Johny left the barn to do his afternoon show. It wasn’t his idea, but at some point he had shown a knack for the instrument and eventually his parents had found a way to profit from it.
Twelve years later Johny was 16 and still doing three shows a day with Tuesdays and Wednesdays off. He went to the large, maroon, tent that took up most of his family’s property, and slipped into his room. It was decorated with photos of him doing his act at increasingly younger ages. He didn’t like seeing it all the time. His parents had insisted it would be good motivation and inspiration.
Sure he was good, but he didn’t think that it would still be a viable means of life twelve years later. But everyday, three times a day the tent filled up with paying spectators to see his stupid parlor trick.
The bell by his door jingled. He had five minutes. He took a breath and grabbed his case. It was just another day in his life. The world may be a stage, but his stage was inside maroon cloth walls.
He stood by the curtain until he was cued in by his father Richardo. Richardo had embraced the large, waxed mustached stereotype of ring leaders. He had even bought himself a good suit, a top hat and greased his hair with shoe polish to look the part.
His mother, Licia, used to do tricks with Helga the elephant. After the elephant had died of dysentery a few years ago his mother bought a seal named Simon. Currently Licia was trying to teach Simon to juggle. Though more often than not, Simon had a problem with dehydration. “He acts so impatient when I try to fill his pool,” Licia once said when Johnny asked why Simon didn’t have water.
So it was alone that Johny stepped into the ring. Announced by a name he had heard so many times that it might as well have been his legal name.
Johny Kazoo stopped at a stand and rested his case on it. He didn’t say anything, he didn’t have to. The audience was enraptured by the scrawny boy with wispy hair and pale skin. He opened the case and pulled out the first instrument.
Despite how much he hated his shtick, he always admired this instrument. It had been a gift from the great Boozdoole himself, the inventor of kazoos. It was different that other kazoos. It was much larger, with several holes that helped him do his performance without the strange garden hose kazoo Johnny made when he was younger.
He placed the metal to his lips and began his rendition of ‘Suzie’s Last Stand’, an old favorite. He held the kazoo with one hand and quickly slipped a small kazoo into a slot on the main kazoo creating a harmony. He added kazoo after kazoo as he went. Some of the kazoos had rubber filters that would stagger the air flow creating a round to the song.
At the end of the song the audience was in an uproar. Johnny performed four more songs, ‘Fifty Shoes in the Kettle’, ‘Why is the baby in the Jon’, ‘Kelp’, and the much loved encore song ‘Don’t do that, you’ll stain your pants’.
Johnny took the kazoos apart one last time and bowed. That was why he was famous. He was Johnny Kazoo master of the harmonic kazoo who could play fifteen kazoos at once. Even more impressive was that he still had enough breath to walk out of the circus ring.
It made people happy. Little kids clamored for an over-priced kazoo. Their parents could hardly stand the sound of wax paper of a comb on a normal day, but they were caught in the glamour of a master and allowed it.
“Good job out there son!” His father said, beaming. “But you should get some more practice in, you went flat at the end of Kelp.”
“Yes Papa,” Johnny knew better than to argue. Helga wasn’t the first to die in his parent’s circus, and he wasn’t planning on being the next casualty.
Instead Johnny took a bucket to the water pump and filled it. He did this twenty times. And twenty times he dumped the water into Simon’s pool. It wasn’t enough to properly fill it, but the seal was happy nonetheless.
“I was going to do that,” his mother huffed after the twentieth bucket was dumped.
“He could use some more water,” Johnny said offering the bucket to his mom.
She shook his head, “Don’t want to spoil him.”
Johnny shrugged and left his mom with the bucket. She would argue further if he kept filling the pool. He would just have to finish it that night. He might as well go to his barn and away from the big top drama.
Outside the tent was flooded with people. He kept his head down and walked with a slow gait. This way he was able to get about half way through the torrent before he was recognized.
“JOHNNY!” A little kid squealed and Johnny’s blood ran cold. Before he could run, he was surrounded on all sides. It was times like these where he missed Helga. No one tried to hug him when he had a massive land mammal beside him. But sans elephant, he was being smothered in affection he did not ask for.
“Let the poor kid breath.” An older man said, this time. There was always at least one who said that. Most of the time the crowd didn’t listen. But this time they did. Johnny looked up and expected to see someone important.
It was just an small old man whose face was more mustache than face. He looked familiar, but then again Johnny had many a fan who made it to more than one show a week. The old man wasn’t his usual repeat attendee, mostly kids under the age of ten and love-struck women between the ages of twelve and thirty-five.
Nonetheless, Johnny was grateful for the break in the crowd. He offered his hand, “Thank you.”
The old man took the offered hand with enthusiasm, “No, thank you! I won’t be the first to say that that was a stunning act.”
“It’s appreciated.” Johnny said just enough to be polite. He just wanted to get back to his barn to see if his gelatin had formed properly.
“I’m Lutenant Phineas, inventor and owner of Gel’No Gelatin Enterprise.” Johnny’s stomach dropped.
“And, after such a grandiose display of Kazoo expertise, I want to ask you to be the face of Gel’No Gelatin Enterprise.
“While I am flattered,” Johnny said carefully, “I will have to…”
“ACCEPT!” A voice yelled from behind. Johnny spun around to see his father just as a large arm wrapped over Johnny’s shoulder. “We humbly accept your offer.”
Lieutenant Phineas’ face lit up and bounded to Johny’s father’s offered hand, “I’m sure I will not regret it.”
“I can guarantee it.” Richardo said grinning. He turned to Johnny, “You go ahead and run off. Adults need to talk.”
“Shouldn’t I be part of it?” Johnny snapped.
Roger bent down and said softly “Until you’re eighteen I’m in charge of your paperwork. I make the choices, you make the money.” He smiled, his hand waving Johnny off.
“Of course.” Johnny headed towards his barn, kicking rocks and empty kazoo boxes. He would rather do any number of great and terrible things than do anything for Gel’No let alone be their public face. Sure he hated the kazoo almost as much as Gel’No, but you don’t let two evil things get together. That just breeds confused children who are really good at playing the kazoo.
Johnny closed the barn door behind him went to the stables. ThunderCleft pawed at the ground, his large nostrils sniffing at Johnny’s offered hand. The horse snorted and shuffled to the side of his stable.
Johnny hopped onto the gate and pet ThunderCleft for a while. The great brown horse was an old warrior when it came to doing things it didn’t want to do. It had ran hundreds of races. Riding crop scars lined his flanks. But that hadn’t stopped ThunderCleft. He had won more races than he had lost and was now safe to do what he pleased.
“Just one song won’t hurt, right?” He asked the horse who just rubbed his face on Johnny, looking for a treat. “Alright, give me a second.”
He turned and something caught his eye. The barn door was open. “Didn’t I shut that?” He asked the horse. Johnny shook his head. He probably left it open so it would be easier to get ThunderCleft out to the field to run for a while. He was almost to the bag of apples when he saw the ice chest and his heart sank.
The chest was open. Johnny crept closer and he could hot anger in his veins. His Gelatin had been dumped all over the ground.
He rushed through the door to catch whoever destroyed his gelatin. But all he could see were his parents on top of the hill talking business with Lieutenant Phineas. There was no sign of anyone else.
“No, no,” Lieutenant Phineas said for the fifth time half way through Johnny’s performance.
Johnny offered the Kazoo to the large man, “Okay, show me how to do it.” It had been four hours of trying to get Lieutenant Phineas’ vision to perfection. Needless to say, it wasn’t going according to plan.
Phineas took the instrument in his thick hands. At his lips the instrument gave a noise that sounded more like a strangled cat eating a very distraught bird than music.
He tried a few more times, each effort sounding more like dieing animals than the last. Finally he dropped the kazoo into Johnny’s expectant hand.
“What you were doing was fine. Let’s go from the top.” Phineas said dejectedly.
Perhaps it never occurred to him that perhaps, just maybe, a fifteen kazoo apparatus had limits. He waved Johnny to start again and didn’t interrupt him until after Johnny finished the piece.
“I guess that will do,” The Lieutenant said lowly.
“The offer still stands,” Johnny teased.
The large man stared Johnny down but didn’t say anything on the matter. “I think we have what we need. You can run off. I will see you Tuesday for your Public performance of the new song.
Johnny span on the spot, “Tuesday?!”
“Yes, Tuesday. Do you have a problem with that?”
Truthfully Johnny had a problem with it. It was his day off and he needed to remake the gelatin. But he shook his head and said, “No sir, Tuesday is fine.”
“Atta boy.” Phineas winked and left.
Johnny talked his anger down as he walked out of the big top. It would be alright. He would just nip back to his burning barn and check on his current batch gelatin.
Johnny stopped, tripping over his suddenly frozen feet. His barn was in flames. He walked slowly towards the sight. The sound of screaming split the air.
“ThunderCleft!” Strength suddenly returned to Johnny’s limbs and he was sprinting towards the barn.
“ThunderCleft!” He screamed again, “I’ll save you, boy.”
Something thick and solid clotheslined him, the smoke filled night sky suddenly looking down at him. “No you don’t.” Richardo loomed just in Johnny’s vision.
“We wouldn’t want smoke getting into those lungs of yours.” Licia’s voice careened.
“But my horse!”
“You can get another horse.” His father said pulling his son back to his feet.
“But my barn!” Johnny tried to run towards the flames, but his father kept him rooted.
“We found a bowl of gelatin.” His mother started slowly, as if they found crack in his pillowcase. “I don’t think it would do well to be making competition for your newest employer, do you?”
“You burned it down?” Johnny felt his legs giving way. “Why?”
“Son, we couldn’t risk you destroying the deal with Lieutenant Phineas.”
“But ThunderCleft? You could have taken him out.”
His mother shrugged, “It never liked me to begin with. You’re better with getting a new pony or something sweeter.”
Johnny shook. ThunderCleft’s screams faded into the crackling of the fire. The smell of burnt meat wafted from the barn. Johnny felt sick to his stomach.
“We’ll clean up the mess,” His dad sad letting go of Johnny. “You go to bed so you can be nice and rested for the big event.”
Johnny couldn’t speak. All he could do was trudge back to the tent and hope that he still had his old recipe book filled with all of his failed gelatins.
Tuesday came quicker than he expected, but Johnny was proud of his work. Lieutenant Phineas wanted several glasses of gelatin lined up over the crowd and Johnny had taken it upon himself to make it perfect. Johnny had even taken it upon himself to hand pick each and every glass. He wanted to make sure everything would go perfectly.
After all, it was going to be his most talked about event. He even wrote a second song just that night for the event.
Sitting down on the stool just behind the curtain, Johnny polished his kazoos. All the while keeping an eye on his work.
It would be a waste if any of the glasses spilled.
“Amazing, my boy!” Lieutenant Phineas exclaimed, startling Johnny from his stupor. “It will never be heard from me that Johnny Kazoo doesn’t deliver.”
“Thank you.” Johnny said with a nod. “If it isn’t too brash of me, I would like to perform a second song that I think will go well with this event.”
“Sure, could you give me a sample of it?”
Johnny paused, and pursed his lips, “I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise. Sir.” He added quickly.
Phineas threw his hands up, “I’ll allow it. But only because I like you.”
“Ah, Phineas!” Johnny’s father sighed, “How is everything?”
“No worse than yesterday, but not as good as tomorrow,” Phineas boasted like a child who thought they were saying something witty.
“Is everything to your liking?” Johnny’s father asked, leading Phineas back stage.
Their conversation mulled over the lights, the recording equipment and even assigned seats.
“You’ll have to sit up front!” Phineas cooed, “Right next to me.”
“We couldn’t,” Johnny’s mother declined politely.
“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” Johnny said.
“Yes, we’ll show the world who raised Johnny Kazoo.”
“If you insist,” Johnny’s dad said, grinning from ear to ear.
It didn’t take long before the tent began to fill up. Seats were taken, swapped, and moaned over. Every now and then there would be the odd mention of a seal in the back of a pick up truck.
“It almost time!” Johnny’s mother squealed, handing Johnny a cup of lemon and honey tea.
“Thanks,” Johnny drank his tea and watched as his mom took her seat. The glasses gleamed above them with their multi-colored gelatin. It looked almost pleasant, like he could forget everything that had recently.
He put his kazoos, now shining, into their case and stretched. This was it.
“Ladies and Gentlemen!” Adam Strupnick, a famous show announcer, said. “We are coming to you live from Kazoo Red top in New Oldwater where there is a remarkable young man whom many of you may have heard of. Brought to you by Gel’no Gelatin. Remember if it’s not Gel’no, say hell no!” He plugged the catch phrase with a thrust of fist to the camera. “Now, say hello to the man of the hour, Johnny Kazooooo!”
Johnny, like every night, walked into the ring with his case and set it on the stand. He paused before opening it and said, “Thank you all for being here tonight. Not only will I be performing the well crafted piece that Lieutenant Phineas devised, but there will also be a never before heard encore song.”
His parents beamed with pride.
Johnny turned to his case and began.
The entire tent was quiet. The acoustics of the tent let the sound wash over the audience. The occasional note from his kazoos would vibrate a few glasses making the note ring. Light would scatter with the vibrating glasses and by the end of the new song, brought to you by Gel’No everyone was on their feet.
He bowed and smiled as sad as he could make a smile, “Thank you. Now the promised encore is a dedication to a great friend of mine who recently passed away in a terrible fire. It’s called, “ThunderCleft Retribution.” There were a few forlorn looks in the crowd, a couple snickers at the name. But his parent’s looks were absolute venom. He would have said more, to assure them that it was not an attack against them.
But they had taught him not to lie unless it was to a tax collector or a recruiter. Besides, he had a show to finish.
Unlike most songs, this song require all fifteen kazoos. It was his greatest piece. Soon he could see his emotion welling up in the faces of the crowd and tears were being shed. The song rose and dipped violently as he played, the glasses vibrated violently.
Then the first glass broke. Gelatin spilled on the audience. Then three more glasses broke. First the audience screamed with delighted surprise.
Then the screams welled up against the music, in swelling agony.
The gelatin ate through the skin of an older man. His face melted away like wax dripping from a candle revealing the toothless skull underneath. Several people jumped back, jostling the tent.
Johnny stopped playing as every single glass fell, in a sudden swoop, over the crowd. He watched as they screamed, skin dripping from limbs. His parents trying in vain to wipe it from themselves, only succeeded in wiping off their own flesh and spreading the terrible concoction.
He slowly, deliberately, put his kazoos away in his case. For what was he but a show man? With each scream he heard ThunderCleft. With each falling body and grinning skull revealed he felt redemption. After the kazoos were put away safely, he bowed and left.
He had a friend in the back of a pick up waiting for him. And his mother always said seals were notoriously impatient.