The ringleader is reading out a statement from the president. The clowns know it's urgent because he hasn't even waited for the trapeze artists to stop flying. By the time he finishes reading, the warheads will have re-entered low atmosphere.
Under the big tent, the crowd doesn't know how to take it at first. Then whispering, talking, shouting, a din gradually building. A solitary scream. Angry booing. We got the news late, won't have more than a few dozen seconds left, if NORAD is to be believed, he explains. The ones pushing and shoving out of the aisles, down the ramps, back towards some notion of escape won't make it far. Without even the time to unlock their car doors, these sprinting desperate people would leave nothing more than ash and belt buckles and keys and teeth on the unpaved parking lot.
The clowns are gathered around their tiny car in the center ring, listening to the news on the radio. They say things like "flight path" and "rogue actor" and "MIRV". Doughy wrinkles her nose, sniffling a tear. Slappo offers her his handkerchief. Then another. And then another one. The trapezists bounce down into the safety nets, after realizing that nobody is paying attention to their aerial tricks. Yarbo, a high-ranking clown, insists that the show must go on, and then climbs onto his precariously balanced ball. Juggling his half dozen bowling pins for the entertainment of all those still watching the circus.
Which is nobody at all.
The lion tamer has his head in his hands, balled up on the floor, hyperventilating faster, and then faster, and then suddenly goes limp, unconscious. Larry the muscle man is praying. Various freaks are running amok.
Delilah, a freak-in-training, rummages through the passed-out lion tamer's pockets. Searching for his keys, the ones that would open the animal's cages. The lion, but also the horses and the trained gibbons, baboons, and monkeys. Zebras and the elephants, even a panda. She wants to set them all free. Bing Bong, the worst clown in the circus, joins her briefly, but only to also steal the animal trainer's hip flask. He grabs the volume, sucks down its contents with two rehab's worth of gusto. Flushed under his white paint, he flops down next to the unconscious animal trainer, then tosses away the flask. Drunk and warm and happy, he thinks.
The audience members remaining in their seats are breaking down. Most are shocked, rigid, staring into their gripped smartphones as history unfolds on their timelines seconds before it unfolds in the real world. They doomscroll their last moments at the clown show apocalypse. Some won't even utter last words. A young family is huddled, salt and butter on their popcorn stained hands, gathered in prayer, bowing their heads beneath the tent. Others stare into the middle distance, unable to take it in, then abruptly sob and sob. The ringleader is talking with the lighting crew, pauses, and then brings them in for a hug. Phone calls are started that won't be finished.
A woman is making out with Groucho, his huge red frowning lipstick smearing across her mouth, red nose honking softly, then quickly, mashing between their breathless bold passions. She wraps herself lustily on his polka-dotted and ruffled chest, her fingers covered in seltzer water from his flower, and they fall down onto the outer ring's dusty floor. They'll face the end with their eyes closed and mouths together.
Gobbo, a promising young junior clown, wanders outside, with his oversized steps in his great red shoes, and stares into the blue cloudless afternoon sky, looking for the nuke. No vapor trail, no arcing stream of white, no klaxon alarms as he squints. Away from the pandemonium in the big tent, it's unsettlingly quiet, and he sees no clue of that tiny dot of a warhead.
Why here? Gobbo thinks to himself. We're nobody. We're in the middle of nowhere. The grease paint stings his eyes as the clown starts to cry. They must be wrong. They wouldn't end the world just to get at us. Through tear filled eyes, he watches the sky, looking for that bit which they warned him about. Nothing... and then a blink of impossible light. Faster than sound and from thousands of feet above, the shockwave of nuclear wind is heralded by the blinding of Gobbo the clown. He cries one last tear, and then his circus is no more.