Editor’s note: Welcome to “The Peepshow!” For centuries, the peepshow was a popular form of entertainment presented by traveling showmen. By looking through a small hole into a viewing box, spectators could contemplate magical, bizarre and unusual sights that filled them with wonder, laughter … and, sometimes, with fear. The showmen traveling with these boxes would provide patter to go with the pictures, spinning strange tales that sometimes told hard truths.
The Polaroid photographs appearing in this story are the work of American artist Joel B. Feldman. They are not digitally altered in any way. The story you are about to read is a work of fiction. “The Peepshow” posts on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
That was not the answer I’d been expecting. Which is not to say that I was expecting anything specific, but I was thinking he’d give me a response that made sense, such as: “I’m an undercover policeman!”
“That can’t be your name,” I replied, rudely indulging my skepticism. “I mean, who’s named, ‘The End of the World?'”
The Man with the Box on His Head tilted his head the other way. “You didn’t ask me my name. You asked me who I am. So I told you.” The Man with the Box on his Head righted his head so he was looking straight at me. “Now answer my question,” he said brusquely. “Who are you?”
I didn’t know what to say, so I flustered for words. Blurting out the first thing that came to mind, I said: “I’m Johnny. Johnny Johnson Jr.”
He shook his head in disappointment. “Don’t you listen, Johnny junior son of John? I asked you to tell me who you are.”
“I’m Johnny,” I repeated with a little whine. “That is who I am.”
The Man with the Box on His Head sighed heavily. “There are thousands of sons of Johns in the world, and every day, there are more little Johns arriving. Little bastards, all of you. Are you telling me that’s what you are?”
I had no idea how to respond. These questions were confusing. I’d never been spoken to this way before. He was vulgar. Rude. Confrontational. “I’m a … a boy?”
“There are ‘boys’ by the millions. Doesn’t answer the question.”
“A human?” I tried hopefully.
He snorted. “Don’t flatter yourself. And there are billions of them.”
“Stop guessing. You’re boring me. Go away now.”
The Man with the Box on His Head cut me off with a wave. “Answer my question.”
“I don’t know how!” I wailed petulantly.
“Of course you don’t know how,” the Man with the Box on His Head snorted dismissively. “What do you know how to do? What can you do? Anything useful?” Mutely, I stared at him in dismay. “It’s because you’ve never asked a question before, Johnny Johnson Jr.,” he said as if talking to himself, “at least not a question you didn’t already know the answer to, and stupid is what happens to people who swallow what they’re given without asking what it is first. That’s not your fault. Not entirely. So I will start by seeing if you can be helped. Come closer,” he commanded.
“Don’t worry, I won’t bite.” He gave a short, dry chuckle that sounded like a warning caw by a sentinel crow. “That’s the least of your troubles right now. I’m going to give you a gift. The gift of opportunity. I warn you now: Don’t waste it. Now come here,” he repeated. “I want you to do something you’ve never done before.”
I steeled myself for the impossible yet wondrous request to find the rare blue flower that blooms on the side of Mount Doomsday. To smite the dragon that eats coals for breakfast and demands seven virgins for supper. To squeeze blood from a turnip and use it to make a love potion for souls lost in purgatory.
Butterflies in my stomach stirred in anxious, eager anticipation as I waited for his words.
There was a slight pause, and then Man with the Box on His Head said the most horrifying thing an authority figure can say to a boy who just broke a whole bunch of rules:
“I want you to look into my eyes, and keep looking until one of us looks away.”
My heart sank.
B.B. Young is the author of the serialized novel “The Peepshow,” which is published exclusively by TheBlot Magazine on Tuesdays and Thursdays and features images by artist Joel B. Feldman. Read Chapter 1, Part 1, The Boy with the Backpack, Chapter 1, Part 2, Anyone Can Call Themselves a Murderer, Chapter 2, Part 1, Here’s Good and Chapter 2, Part 2, The Man with the Box on His Head.