The clown had been on the corner since the morning rush.
Ruby sat at the window counter in Café Bella and took a sip of pink-tinged tea. She didn't care for this turn of events one single bit.
At the register, Alice scowled, looking past Ruby at the skinny figure clad in faded fabric tatters and crepe paper. Its face was an indistinguishable smear of greasepaint and it stood utterly unmoving as pedestrian traffic pushed between it and the man selling knockoff handbags. "That's it, I'm calling the cops."
It didn't actually look like a clown-not in any normal, modern sense, at least. No big red nose or goofy shoes, a distinct lack of balloon animals and shitty hamburgers. But it-Ruby had a difficult time thinking of the thing on the corner as anything other than "it"- gave off such a distinct and unsettlingly primal whiff of clown that she was hard pressed to think of it any other way.
"Isn't it weird, though?" Ruby turned her phone over in her hands, the brightly coloured puzzle game on its screen bleating cheerfully in the empty coffee shop. "I mean, nobody else seems to notice. Hell, even Omar's not weirded out by it, and I'm like 85% sure he thinks he gets those purses from aliens."
Alice just rolled her eyes. "Ruby, this is New York. I don't know what it's like where you come from, but during the last snow, I watched some dumb motherfucker on the corner wearing unicorn pajamas play a banjo for tips. Generally speaking, a clown ain't shit." Alice paced, clearly listening to 911 ring ineffectually. "But since he showed up, I haven't had one customer."
"You've had me?" Ruby found herself twirling the fading ends of her green-dyed hair and hastily yanked her hand free, slapping it down on the counter with a bang. Both of them jumped and Ruby choked out a nervous giggle. "I mean. Here. I came here. And… I bought tea." She gestured at the cup with her phone.
Alice sagged against the fridge and laughed, tighter than Ruby would've liked, and pushed a dark curl out of her face. "Technically, you work here. This is your day off, you know." She glanced back at the window where the clown still stood like some grotesque lawn ornament, and frowned when a few tourists stopped to take pictures of it. "Great. Now everyone's gonna know we have a clown problem."
"I don't actually have a life, and since Luis went home sick and… ah. Anyways. No, it's… not like where I come from." Ruby sighed, then blinked hard, the phone slipping out of her hand and clattering on the counter. "Hey. The clown's gone." She frowned out at the street where Omar still sold his handbags and the traffic streamed past. "It was just there a second ago. Why don't I feel better that it's gone?"
Alice hung up in frustration. "I don't feel better either. I think we're gonna close early."
"Good plan. Sound plan." Ruby picked up her phone as she gathered her things. "Shit!"
Alice startled at the curse. "What!? Is he back?"
Ruby looked outside just to reassure herself the clown was still gone, then shook her head. "No, when I dropped it, I must've bumped the screen. This stupid puzzle thing has ads all the time, and somehow I installed another game."
"Jesus Christ. My heart isn't gonna stand much more of this." Alice busied herself at the cash register, closing it out, before turning her attention to the countertop. "And you are awfully attached to that thing for someone without a life."
"Who said I don't have a life?" Ruby demanded as she tugged on her pink furry jacket.
"You did, five minutes ago." Alice smiled like a cat at her and Ruby snapped her attention back to the phone screen, feeling her cheeks burn.
On the screen, an anime-style video was playing. It was pretty, a context-free swathe of attractive people posing dramatically in vaguely military uniforms before a stylised title swirled across the screen. It wasn't anything she hadn't seen in a hundred late night cartoon binge sessions, but she couldn't look away.
They looked so very strangely real.
It wasn't English, and she was relatively sure it wasn't Japanese. "What the fuck is this?"
Alice strolled over, drying her hands as she looked at the elegant swirls. "Hey, good job! You probably just downloaded some weird alien virus." She laughed, wandering away. "At least it wasn't more clowns."
Ruby held her thumb over the home button, prepared to delete it, but the characters on the screen shifted-an idle animation no doubt-and one held out his hand to her. Some artificial breeze stirred his dark hair with a peacock sheen across the strands, and a smile played on his almost perfectly scruffy, handsome face. Like before, he looked disturbingly real and not at the same time.
Ruby wasn't sure she cared for this turn of events much either.
"I don't even like guys," she hissed at the screen, then clicked it off. "You're all cute, so you get to stay for now. But you better not end up being some weirdass Russian bloatware, mister."