"It's called Jenning's Disease," the antiques shopkeeper tells me.
Another flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig's blog Terrible Minds.
Being the rube I am, I look away from the picture hanging up on the wall and respond with an ineloquent "Huh?"
"The boy in the picture there, what he has is called Jenning's Disease. That's why he has the spikes coming out of his head."
The shopkeeper says this like it's the most natural thing in the world with the kind of New England accent that I didn't think existed outside of a Stephen King novel.
"You mean this is real?" I ask.
I stare down at the photograph. It's old, probably turn of the last century if not before then, and shows a blurry picture of a boy with what looks like weird appendages coming out of his face. It looks fake, clearly the result of some odd low-tech version of Photoshop but according to the shopkeeper..
"It's as real as you and me standing here," he says.
"But how is this...?"
"Possible? I told you, Jenning's disease. Although I reckon that you won't find that term in any medical book. That was given to him by ol' Doc Jennings, who was my great uncle on my mother's side, when the Freeman's Circus came through town. This must've been around 1906? 1907?"
"And this boy was part of the circus?"
The shopkeeper nods.
"He was the main attraction for the side show. They called him the Devil's Son, on account of the horns, and tried to pass it off as something supernatural. Course when the doc got a look at him he said that it was nothing of the sort, that he just had a disease is all. He wanted to spend a whole summer studying him, hoped to make his name off him but the ringmaster told him no and moved the show out of town after that."
"That was the last the town seen of him, but the doc kept track of him nonethesame, hoping for the chance to study his condition. He never did but he did keep a journal that I still got someplace around here..."
The shopkeeper spends a few minutes rummaging around behind the counter before he comes out with a rough hewn brown leather book. He quickly flips through to the middle and points at a what looks like a long list of dates and names written in a badly scrawled cursive.
"From 1907 to 1914 the Devil's Son was with the Freeman's Circus, then when it went under he joined up with Barnum's World Show from 1914 to 1923 or so. Changed his name to the Satan Spawn or some nonsense, though folks said he still looked the same age. Then onto Leroy Stardust's Traveling show til the war where he seems to disappear for a bit before showing up again in Europe in 1954 with the Famille Etoile under the name of L'Enfant Terrible. Then back to the U.S. with a bunch of different outfits before retiring sometime in 1967. He probably could've kept going except it seems like people started feeling ashamed of paying money to gawk at people's deformities and business for the sideshows dried up. It didn't matter that the people in the sideshows didn't want to give up the act. They knew that this was their only way to make a living and that the world outside though they felt bad for paying to see them had no place wouldn't huck a louey to help em otherwise."
The shopkeeper shakes his head and makes a tsk sound.
"It's around this time that the ol' doc passed away and nobody else took up the job of keeping track of the Devil's Son. It would've died there except for six months past I had a gentleman come in the shop and look at the picture, same as you did now, and he tells me that he that same boy in an old farmhouse on the edge of Manning."
Before I know it, before I can rationalize why he called the Devil's Son a boy and not a hundred a twenty I'm asking where that is.
"Well, you can't get there from here, but if you take the 95 to Medway and make a left turn at the exit..."
After a little insistence I get the shopkeeper to mark it on map, the only thing I end up actually buying at the shop.
After I few hours on the highway and a few more on dirt roads so bad they'd make the Third World blush I finally pull up to a dilapidated old farmhouse that seems to match the description. The dusk light plays with the trees around the farmhouse, so that if I squint just right I can almost imagine a dingy circus tent with the crumbling porch as the flaps opening up to reveal a bit of the darkness inside. I get out of my car and slowly, almost reverently make my way to the doorway, to find that the door has long ago fallen off its hinges. I knock but only an echo replies. I hold my breath and step inside, careful to avoid the rotting boards. The walls are bare, with faint traces of green wallpaper peeling off in droves.
In the kitchen I find him. The exact same visage as the picture, sitting in a rocking chair. He stares at me as I stare at him, the tendrils and tusks on his face rising and falling with his breath. Only his eyes are different, there's an oldness and weariness to them that only comes with time and bitter memories. I want to ask him so many questions, so many things but my mouth is dry and I can't speak. He points to the table in front of him, to a tin can and a sign that says 25 cents. It takes me a bit to figure what he wants, but when I finally do I reach into my pocket and clumsily take out a quarter. With shaky fingers I slip it into the can, and for the life of me I swear that he smiles.
I don't remember leaving, don't remember walking back to my car, but before I know it I'm back on the 95. I feel no wiser, but somehow, a helluva lot older.