“Come on,” Devi says, “don’t be such a baby.”
Edgar stares dismally at the waterfall of vines hanging between the trees. If he had a different best friend, a phone call at three in the morning probably would have meant they were going out for pizza, or that she needed someone to give her a ride. With Devi, it’s…this.
“A drain pipe?” He says, shining the beam of his flashlight over the ivy. It lies shuttered in waves over the broad circumference of a tunnel-sized tube poking out of the dirt and rock of the hill. “You made me drive all the way out here so we could look at a drain pipe. It’s a drain pipe.”
“Yeah, a drain pipe that wasn’t here yesterday,” she says. “Look, man, I gotta see what’s on the other side, and I’m not dumb enough to wander into a mysterious tunnel on my own.”
“You wanna know what’s on the other side? The sewer system, Devi. The sewer system is on the other side.” Edgar sighs and runs a hand over his face, pushing his glasses up to squeeze the bridge of his nose. “How did you even find this?”
Devi scoffs and kicks a rock. She doesn’t look dissuaded from her mission even a little bit. “I’m down here all the time,” she snaps, “sketching practice. Trees and shit. Flowers make good models.”
“Yeah, but it’s…October.”
“There’s lots of stuff in an arboretum, Edgar,” she says, shaking her head and putting a hand on her hip. “It’s got nice walking paths. This is right along my normal run. It’s new. This pipe wasn’t here in August, it wasn’t here last week. It shouldn’t be here.”
“Maybe you just missed it,” he says, and eyes the pipe nervously again. There aren’t any street lamps in the arb, no overhead illumination of any kind. The light pollution of the nearby city is strong enough to snuff out most of the stars, but out here, they’re in almost complete darkness. Devi’s not wrong—the dark mouth behind the ivy is making him nervous. “It’s kind of in the thick of the trees here. And it’s got all the, uh, growth over it. Maybe it blended in before.”
“There wasn’t any growth here on Monday,” she says, “this was grey rock. There wasn’t even that tree.” She points her light at a bendy…oak? Edgar doesn’t know that much about trees. It curls out of the side of the hill, roots splayed wildly and branches perfectly spaced for climbing. It looks old.
“Oh,” Edgar says.
“Yeah,” she says. “Mysterious tunnel that shows up in the middle of the forest and reveals itself to a troubled, friendless artist? I’m either about to get superpowers or super haunted and killed by a demon or a ghost or something cooler than either of those dumb things. This is definitely a bad idea, but I can’t not make it.” She glances sidelong at him. “Even if I have to go it alone.”
“Hey, I came, didn’t I?” Edgar says, resignedly. He glances down at his shoes. If he’d only known they were going into the sewer, he would’ve worn his other sneakers. The raggedy ones. With the duct tape.
“Correction: tunnel reveals itself to troubled, single-friend-ed artist,” Devi says, grinning. “Come on.”
With one arm, she parts the ivy like a bead curtain in some incense-thickened vintage wholesaler, and motions for Edgar to step through. “This is a bad idea,” he says, grits his teeth, and slips into the dark.
The metal of the tube isn’t as wet as he figured a drain pipe would be, which probably should have been his first clue that something was wrong. In the moment, he’s just relieved—at least his sneakers won’t be getting wet yet. Shining his flashlight into the dark doesn’t reveal a metal grate for sieving out chunks of wood or overzealous teenagers in a flash flood, though. The light travels along the walls until it reaches its limit, leaving him to stare down an impenetrable darkness. He stretches out the hand holding the light, shuffles forward a few awkward steps, hoping to get a glance at a bend in the piping or an end of the road or something, but no dice.
With a set of metal clangs behind him, Devi steps inside and shines her light past his shoulder. “Not a drain pipe,” she says, “see? No grate. Come on, let’s go.”
Devi pushes past his shoulder entirely and takes the lead. Edgar shifts slightly to let her through, then—since they hardly need two lights—switches his own beam off and follows her lead. It’s slow going. The tube’s big enough for an adult to stand up in, but Edgar’s always been tall, and it’s just a little low for his head. He finds himself craning his head sideways to fit. Neither of them speaks.
Any second now, Edgar figures, any second now there’ll be a bend, they’ll hit a drop or a snag or a turn. Their footsteps echo back and forth, behind them and out into the enveloping blackness. If the park outside seemed dark, it’s nothing compared to this—he feels as though he’s being swallowed—the light ahead of him does nothing, he’s blind, blind, twisting his head to the side, the walls around them are so tight…
It’s hard to tell, with the echo, but somewhere behind him, he thinks he hears another set of footsteps.
Maybe it’s nothing.
He slows to a stop, and ahead of him, maybe aware of the sudden stillness, Devi stops too. He can’t hear anything behind him anymore, maybe it was just an echo—still, he flicks on his torch, shines the light back the way they came. The beam stretches out into the darkness. He expects to see the curtain of ivy, or a tree, some sign of the tunnel’s mouth. Instead, he sees darkness, impenetrable and suffocating and deep, and they can’t have come so far, can they? Out of sight of the exit?
“Run,” Devi says, and as one, they wheel around and sprint through the tunnel. Edgar can feel his heart in his chest, in his ears—behind him, the footsteps break into a run as well, chasing the echoes of their sneakers. The light in Devi’s hand sputters and blinks out, and they stumble through the dark—the sound of their pursuer rattles between Edgar’s ears—
And they burst out onto soft dirt and green grass, stumbling and panting. Ahead of them, illuminating itself in the unfamiliar gloom like an exotic and horrifying deep-sea creature, blasting cheerful music out of distant loudspeakers, stands what is inarguably a carnival. Circus? Carnival. What’s the difference?
Where the hell are they?
“What the hell,” he says, “where did that come from?”
“Don’t know, don’t care,” Devi replies, panting, “if it’ll put some distance between us and…whatever that thing in there was…we’re going over there. That’s that.”
She looks badly shaken. Edgar, ever a friend, does not comment on this. They walk toward the village of tents, draping themselves in the thin orange haze of electric light.
On impulse, Edgar glances up at the sky. Still no stars, just an endless void of space. He was hoping he’d be able to see the clouds or the moon or something, but what little light there is is way too dim. Too bad.
“Where do you think we are?” He asks. “I mean, we went through the hill in the arb, that’s pretty far away from anywhere with people. I didn’t think the carnival was in town. It’s kind of late in the year, isn’t it?”
Devi shrugs. “Maybe it’s a circus?”
“What’s the difference?”
“I dunno. Look, there’s a ticket stall. On me, for getting into this mess.” She points, but Edgar glances behind them. No sign of their pursuer. Maybe it’s stuck in the pipe. Maybe there was no one there at all. “Two adults,” she says to the woman on the other side of the glass as she fishes her wallet out of her pocket, “do you have a student discount?”
“Two tickets is four quid,” the woman says, not looking up from the magazine she’s reading. She’s got a bit of a Josephine Baker look about her, short hair with a single stylish curl, if Josephine Baker wore about four pairs of fake eyelashes and worked at a theme park.
“Uh,” Devi says, “I can give you dollars? Do you mean dollars?”
“Quid’s a quid, mate,” Not-Josephine-Baker says with a thick New York accent. “A pound sterling. We don’t take American money here.”
“But we’re in America,” Devi says, and glances helplessly at Edgar, who shrugs.
“Right,” she says, “and here, it costs four quid. You can pay up or go back the way you came.” Without a glance up, she points a long, elegant finger up against the glass. When he follows the line of sight, Edgar’s eyes catch on the metal of the tube. He flinches.
“Um,” he says, “do you take Visa?”
Not-Josephine-Baker slaps her magazine shut with a put-upon sigh and an eye-roll so intense it almost gives Edgar vertigo. “Look,” she says, “if you’re desperate, you can just sign an IOU. We’ll take your name, and you can go on through.” She reaches around under the shelf and produces two pale blue slips of paper, which she passes through the small circle in the glass. “Just sign those.”
Edgar pats his shirt down for a pen. Unfortunately, since it’s the middle of the night, he’s still wearing his grungy sleep-shirt, which has no pocket and ergo has no pen. Worse still, he threw a hoodie on. Why couldn’t he have chosen one of his flannels? His flannels always have pens in the pocket. “Do you have…anything to write with?”
“Don’t you?” Not-Josephine-Baker snipes. “You’ve got blood, right?”
“Gross, no,” Devi says. “Look, I’ve got a pen, don’t worry about it.” She scribbles down a quick ’DevDel’ and passes her pen to Edgar, who scrawls his name down on his own page. “So, what, you give us the yellow copy and…what, just trust us to come back?”
“Something like that,” Not-Josephine-Baker says, and takes both pages from them. “I don’t really get how it works, I just sell the tickets, you know? Anyway. Welcome to the Greatest Show Unearthed, exclamation point. Enjoy your stay. Preferably you can enjoy it somewhere that’s not in front of my window?” She presses some button under the counter, then leans back in her chair and starts flipping through her magazine. There’s a click of turnstiles being unlocked.
“Thanks,” Edgar says. Not-Josephine-Baker grunts. They go through.
Imagine all the world vibrating on the edge of a coin—imagine a deep place in the dark wet dirt, the sort of place you would find at the bottom of a well.
The carnival throbs with volume, noise and music and the mindless chatter of worthless sounds, distinct and brilliant in their ugly diversity. A veritable forest of tents, sprouting up like the fungus at the root of a tree, flourishing around the black-iron monster of a ferris wheel in the dead center of the beast. Orange tops, red and yellow stripes. Somewhere, a splash of deep water—elsewhere, the roar of an untamed lion.
Callers yell their wares, cheap lights flicker. The pavilion bursts to life in a bustle of faceless shapes and shapeless faces, friends shoving one another along in grey ghostly movement. There are no people here, just the glinting yellow-white of fresh grins and laughter of girls who have been dead longer than you have been alive. This is a haunted place, chilly in October, the autumn wind sweeping dying leaves in a synchronized dance to broken melodies screeching out of half-fixed pipe organs.
Edgar Vargas stands alone in the center of it.
Somewhere between the ticket booth and the first stall on his left, Devi disappeared, wholesale. Dropped off the face of the earth, as per usual. He calls her name twice, head swiveling, before the panic starts to rise in his chest. “Devi?” He says a third time. “Where the hell did you—“
She could have gone anywhere. He could panic about it, let the pressure swell up in him—or he could be the adult in their friendship, as per usual, and ask around. After some nervous deliberation, he joins the short queue in front of the dark ferris wheel, an imposing shape against the cut of the sky.
The girl at the front of the line is the first normal-looking person Edgar’s seen all day (and no, don’t ask—Devi hasn’t looked “normal” a day in her life), and he feels a surge of general goodwill towards humanity when she turns and beams at him. Worn-soft tee-shirt, jeans, a vivid orange bandanna twisting her dreads straight up into an veritable thicket above her head. “You up next, bud?”
“Hi, um,” he says, and scrambles up onto the metal platform, “have you seen a woman with purple hair? Intense makeup, about my age—“
“Purple hair?” She scrunches her face up and cranes her neck back. “Dunno. Probably not. Think I’d remember that. Why? Sister or something?”
“She’s my friend,” he says, “we got separated at the gate. I just need to grab her and get out of here, but I can’t find her anywhere, I was hoping an employee might have seen something…” He trails off. The girl is staring at him sympathetically.
“Well, I haven’t seen anything, but I guess the top of the black ferris is the best place to look from, right?” She points a finger straight up, towards the top of the wheel. “I bet you could see hair like that from all the way up there. Might help you find her, you know? Localize the search.”
“The black ferris?” Edgar glances up at the wheel, black iron twisting against the orange glow of artificial night. “Like the Ray Bradbury short?”
“Uh.” She blinks mulishly. “Well, it’s like—a ride, you know. I could run it real slow for you, so you could get a good look—“
“The short where the guy gets on a ferris wheel and as it goes around, it ages him rapidly,” Edgar interrupts her. “You know the one? And he can’t get off without assistance, and he ages until he dies?”
She clicks her tongue. “Um.”
“In a mysterious circus,” he says, “in October. When he uses it to become a child again and rob an old woman, but then when he tries to age up to adulthood again, the guy at the console forgets to stop the wheel, even as he screams for the guy to release him as he cracks and wizens.”
He stares her down.
The girl looks to her left. She looks to her right. “Sooo…you do want to ride,” she says.
“I think I’m good, actually,” Edgar says, eyes refocusing on the bones of a machine cranking silently through the evening. “She’s pretty tall, actually. I’m pretty tall. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to go looking from the ground.”
“Ugh. You literature majors, always thinking you’re hot poop,” the girl says, and shakes her head. She’s still grinning. “Look, I can prove that this thing stops, you know? That’s the issue, right, you think it won’t stop and you’ll grow old with your family and die up there? Or whatever happens in your…Bradbury, that’s the sci-fi guy, right? He did Twilight Zone, or an episode for Twilight Zone or something. I dunno, I mostly like robot-punchy movies.” She shrugs. “It’s not hard. I mean, I have to stop it to put you in here anyway. Look! Wait up for a second!”
With the push of a button, the ferris wheel comes to a stop. Edgar glances into the carriage at the ground to make eye contact—eye contact?—with a starched-ivory skeleton, wreathed in black hair and dark clothes. The girl at the console follows his gaze and startles.
“Oops,” she says, stiffening. “I mean, haha.”
“Okay, I’m leaving now,” Edgar says. He takes a step backwards towards the gate.
“Wait, no,” she says, throwing a hand out towards him. “It’s not, like, a real body, obviously! You know, it’s just, like—it’s prop comedy, you know? Like, ha-ha, the Black Ferris…like the Ray Bradbury short, with the skeleton? It’s a joke, you don’t have to take it so serious.”
“I thought you said you didn’t know who Ray Bradbury was,” Edgar says. He takes another step back.
“Well, that was, um…a brick joke? A long con? Look, it’s not like it’s a real—“
“C’mon, Tenna, piss off,” says an unfamiliar voice at Edgar’s shoulder, and he wheels around in a panic to see a boy about his age, shredded in black from the spikes in his hair to the buckles on his shoes. “He caught your dumb ruse, he’s not interested. Give everyone else a turn.”
The ferris girl—Tenna—scowls. “It’s not fair,” she grumbles, “I always get them first, they’re not even freaked out yet—“
“Yeah, yeah, you’ll get the next one,” the boy says, and grins. His teeth are uneven in his mouth, sharp, jutting from every side and far larger, far more numerous than they ought to be. When Edgar squints, he swears he can see another set behind the first. “This one’s on me. Hey, man,” he says, to Edgar, this time, “I know where your friend is. Come with me.”
“You do?” Edgar blinks. The boy’s makeup is stark in blacks and whites, and underneath it, he barely looks human, eyes black as kingpin marbles. But if there’s a chance—
He steps forward.
“Huh,” the boy with the teeth says, “that was easier than I thought it’d be.”
Whip-quick and cracking in the air, he grabs Edgar by the wrist. His spare hand snaps a set of fingers.
The dull orange glow of the evening is gone, replaced by the soft electric hum of starroom lights in an unfamiliar tent. Edgar squawks and stumbles back, twisting his head to accommodate the new space. All around him, the boiled remains of shark jaws litter the walls in wire rigs. The boy, who releases him easily, rolls his eyes and retreats to a LED lit makeup table.
“Look, normally I give this pitch my all,” Sharktooth says, “but I just got off my fourth show of the night, and I’ve got two more to go, so I’m just going to put in, like, the minimum possible effort. You want to stay here forever?”
“Yeah, at the carnival,” he says, “it’s kind of a honeypot situation. Do you know the dictionary definition of a trap? You might want to check it out sometime. Merriam-Webster, T-R-A—are you writing this down?“
“Look,” Edgar says, feeling wrong-footed, “I’m just trying to find my friend. Have you seen her? We got—we got separated, we—“
“Your friend’s fine, dude. She just couldn’t get in,” Sharktooth says, “didn’t give her real name at the front. The turnstiles probably never let her through to begin with.”
“I don’t understand,” Edgar says, “but if she’s trapped out there, I need to get back to her—we were being chased on our way here, by this—“
“Let me guess,” Sharktooth says, and pulls a compact out of his pocket. As he speaks, he begins adding khol to the shadows around his eyes. “Some mysterious footsteps that you couldn’t see the source of but that you knew, somehow, wanted something bad from you, right?” He flutters his eyes at the mirror. “And then you ran right up to the ticket booth, and they asked you for some kind of money you didn’t have, so they took your names—literally—only your friend didn’t give her real name, so they didn’t have anything to take.”
Edgar stares at him. “Edgar,” he says, “Edgar Vargas.”
“That’s my name,” he says, starting to feel hot behind the ears. “I still remember it. They couldn’t have taken it if I still remember it.”
“It’s not Spirited Away, dude,” Sharktooth sighs, and snaps the compact in his hand shut like a sassy blond mean girl with a flip phone in an early-2000s movie. “You’re not going to forget your name. You just can’t ever leave now that this place knows it.”
Edgar wants to sit down, very badly. He is alone in this bizarchitecture, separated at the first moment from the only companion he has ever had for the majority of his life. There is nothing particularly new about the isolation—he has always been a quiet child, on the outskirts of friend groups, unable to make contact. Never interesting enough to be brought in but never boring enough to be dropped entirely. A smile and a nod. A person with a car who never asked too many questions.
Devi had always been something different, another shadow hanging around at people’s backs. The difference between them was that Devi lived there by choice, and actively removed herself from the company and memories of people who displeased her. For some reason, she had kept her acquaintance with Edgar until it had evolved into a friendship almost entirely of his making. She never reached out to him—but then, she never shrunk away. That was enough for him, someone he could bridge the gap to. Besides, she called him sometimes, mostly because he was the only person she knew with a car.
She’s his closest and only friend. He can’t go back without her, but she could go back without him.
He presses two fingers between his eyebrows. “Okay,” he says, “so—so I’m trapped. What do I do? There must be some way out, right?”
Sharktooth sighs. “God, you’re a sadsack,” he says. “Okay. Hear what I’ve got to say, ‘cause you won’t hear it again. You want out? I can’t help you. Go down to the riverbank—the water runs a perimeter around us, keeps us apart from your world. Find Johnny. Don’t promise him anything except as a trade for your freedom, ‘cause he’s a sneaky son of a bitch but he won’t cheat if shit doesn’t break his way. Which is more than you’re gonna get from Tess.”
“That’s the question you have?” Sharktooth’s lip curls up, revealing those layers of uneven bone. “There’s no way you get out of here alive, dude. I’m gonna bet against Tenna on this. Johnny. Johnny Sea. Come on, man, I got a uniform to change into, can I get a little privacy?” He snaps his fingers—
And Edgar is on the green outside, string lights above him and a bustling crowd of shadows and meaningless shapes. He curses, and starts making his way towards the river.
It’s not as hard as he thought it’d be. He’s not following any signs, and the crowds are packed thick, but the people around him give way as he pushes through. He tries to think—his head is too full of the sounds of distant music, and the groaning crank of the monstrous machine looming over the carnival. The autumnal air is frigid, even through his hoodie, and he pulls it close around him.
The water runs a perimeter—but he and Devi didn’t pass over any water. Unless, the tunnel…it could have been some sort of bridge. But there isn’t any running water for miles around. Deep underground, maybe, where the dead ships live, where the bones of our fallen brethren were starved out until they were too weak to brush away the maggots crawling on their flesh—
Edgar looks down as a jolt of cold hits him hard up the leg to find himself knee deep in black, rushing water. He cries out and stumbles back—his legs hit a wet rock and he trips—
Two hands catch him under the arms as he slips under the surface of the water and drag him bodily back over the dark rocks of the shore. He gasps and writhes as his back bumps and scrapes on uneven boulders, tugged to the safety of wet grass by an invisible force.
“Shush,” the figure holding him says, voice rasping and unfamiliar, “how did you get out here?” The hands release. Edgar hits the ground gently, and twists his head to survey his surroundings.
The carnival is a distant light on the horizon, close enough that he can make out the red-yellow stripes on tents but far enough that the lighting rigs don’t penetrate the ugly dark of a clouded night. The river rushes on, a thing of rapids and cacophony. How could he have stumbled into it? He hadn’t even realized he’d left the campgrounds. The place where the dead ships live…he still can’t see the stars. The clouds should have passed by now.
“Hello,” says the raspy voice again, close to his face, and Edgar jumps as the body scrambles back.
“Who are you?” Edgar says. With some distance between him, he can make out the silhouette of a crouched figure, kneeling and watching him with intense interest. It’s dark, but those eyes catch like fire in the evening, glistening and glowing the blue-orange of a cat in the shadow. Tapetum lucidum, says a distant academic voice in the back of his head, night vision. Be careful.
“I asked my question first.” He tilts his head. “Did someone send you?”
“There was—I—a boy, the boy with the teeth,” Edgar says, brain scrambling quickly for any memory that might save him. “He told me—he told me to find—are you Johnny Sea?”
The figure shifts uncomfortably. “You can call me Nny,” he says after a moment.
“Edgar,” Edgar says, propping himself up on his elbows. He can feel the fabric of his shirt drenching in wet mud. “Edgar Vargas. How did I just…wander into the water like that? I thought I was still on the fairgrounds.”
“There’s a general glamor on the river. To drown people who try to escape. Why are you still on the ground?”
“Oh. Um.” Edgar’s face burns. “I didn’t—“
“Let me help you,” Nny says, straightening and stepping forward. His movement is odd, awkward in a way Edgar can’t explain, like those videos of people walking backwards played in reverse, fluid where it shouldn’t be and jerking through ease. As he adjusts his glasses and squints up through the mist-dank air, he realizes he’s having no issue seeing the figure that approaches him. His outline, the contour of his face—it’s as defined as if it were in the cold light of day. When he extends his hand, Edgar stares down without taking it.
“Hey,” he says, “are you some kind of skeleton man or something?”
“What? No,” Nny says, snatching a hand of exposed phalanges back against his chest in embarrassment, “I’m a normal man, who’s alive. I’ve got skin, and everything.”
“Really? Because you look like—“
“Skin!” He interrupts, and pinches his cheek demonstratively. As Edgar watches, he pulls it away from his face, thin as tissue paper and translucent. The hard line of his skull is still visible beneath it. “Skin and bones! And blood! The make-up of man, it’s all here! What right have you to judge? Why are you still on the ground?”
“Uh. You said you’d help me up?” Edgar says. “It’s fine, I’ll just—“
“No! Wait! I’ve got it,” Nny says hurriedly, and produces a glove from a pocket of his overcoat. “I’ll just—just give me a second—“
Maybe as a testament to how batshit his night already is, Edgar sits in the frozen October grass and waits for the skeleton to pull his long black glove over his elbow and out of sight. “There,” Nny says with a certain finality, and offers Edgar the freshly gloved, definitely-still-a-skeleton-under-there hand. Edgar takes it and is lifted bodily to his feet, suddenly very close to the frail creature holding his hand.
Up close, the skin of his face almost seems multifaceted, pale and glinting like diamond sand. Or perhaps that’s his skull, underneath the soft transparent exterior, the cut of his mandibles, the shape of his eye sockets. The eyes and hair seem organic enough, but all he can think of is the creeping legs of a deep sea terror, the half-rotted carcasses of dried jellyfish on the shore.
“Why did you come here?” Nny asks again, blinking up at him. He makes no move to step away, or release Edgar’s hand.
Edgar shivers, not entirely because of the river water seeping into his clothes. He coughs. “Right,” he says, “I need your help.”
In as many words, he explains the situation. Nny scowls down at the ground. “DevDel,” he says, “she should be locked out. To lie to us—to give us false words—“
“Um, I don’t think it was on purpose,” Edgar says, “that’s just, like, her signature. She puts it on her art commissions and stuff? When she does paintings? I think she just did it without thinking.”
“An artist?” Nny blinks up at him—his face contorts—he shrugs Edgar’s grip off his body and storms away, coat flaring at his heel. “Of course, we could have had an artist, a creature of the eternal, and instead we get—what do you do?”
“Um,” Edgar says. He shivers, this time entirely because of the cold. He’s wishing he brought some warmer clothes. “I mean, I’m…I study accounting? Thanks a lot, by the way.”
“Oh, no, that’s not what I—no, you’re great,” Nny says dismissively. He won’t turn back around. Edgar’s ears burn with frustration he can’t name. “But art—an artist—what they could bring to us! To the carnival! If we—I was an artist, once—before I became…before I…”
Edgar watches him as he zigzags across the wet stones of the river. “You used to be human?” He asks softly.
“I don’t know,” Nny says, “I don’t remember…”
The river rushes on beside them.
“I’m sorry, Edgar-Edgar-Vargas,” Nny says, “but the carnival—it feeds on people. It’s…have you ever seen the carcass of a man o' war? The creeping tentacles, the stench of its flesh…”
“I haven’t,” Edgar says. Or maybe he has. It feels familiar, a visual already in his head.
“A man o’ war is one creature comprised of millions of smaller organisms,” Nny says, jaw stiffening. His face half-turns—a sharp thing in noseless profile—something about this feels practiced, like a pitch. Recitative. “When it feeds, it benefits itself as a singular creature—and yet it benefits all the organisms that make it. Do you understand? This carnival, it’s one thing, breathing and pumping like the slow-rotting heart in your miserable ribs, but everything that makes it, those things are alive! Compromise, collaboration! If I set you free, I would steal you from the mouth of this horrible machine, this oppressive fog cracking the bones of my spine apart under its cruel heel, and yet I—I would be hungry, my mouth dry from the dust on my tongue! But what are needs, what are urges? I had blood once, but more than that, I had dreams! I had my—hey, how did you get here, anyway?”
“There was a drain pipe. Do you…want something?” Edgar wraps his arms around himself. “The shark guy told me to make a deal with you. Is there something I can give you so you can let me go?”
Nny blinks at him like he’s seeing him for the first time. “I want you,” he says, and Edgar’s spine shudders and burns, “stay here with us. Stay with me.”
“I want to go,” Edgar says, mind scrambling for the advice Sharktooth gave him, “anything I promise is—is in return for my freedom. You have to let me go.” He swallows. “If you let me go, I can come back for you.”
“Is that your offer?” Nny asks. “That’s sweet. But the carnival wants the artist. It caught you by mistake. You’re not supposed to be here.”
Edgar’s heart pounds in his ears. “And you? What do you want?” He holds a hand out. “Don’t you want to go home?”
The river—the place where the dead ships live, somewhere deep underground—above them, there are no stars and no clouds, only the dank smell of dark earth wet with the mist of the rushing water—the river rushes past them.
“Yes,” Nny says, arms tight to his chest, shoulders hunched to his ears, and his face sallow and empty with the weight of tissue paper skin. His eyes glow in the eternal night. “I want to go home with you.”
They shake on it.
The details of the plan are vague. From what Edgar can understand, the less he knows about it, the less danger he’s in. Nny says this place can smell terror on him, but it can smell knowledge way harder, and it’ll converge like piranhas on Theodore Roosevelt. They’re meeting in a busted sideshow towards the entrance.
Amazing Escapes from Fantastical Traps, reads a sign. This way to the Egress, reads another. With a surreptitious glance around to make sure he’s not being watched, Edgar parts the flaps of the only purple tent on the fairground and slides through into the unlit cavern.
It’s not a particularly large tent from the outside, but by some more goddamn magical fuckery, the inside is definitely larger, or at least Edgar thinks so until he walks straight into a mirror a good five feet from where he thought the nearest wall was. The world tilts and writhes on a spit in front of him—there’s a soft creaking noise above—
When he looks up, he can see a metal skeleton of beams stretching across the roof of the tent. Roof? What do you call the top of a tent? Chains dangle from random angles. Some end in butcher’s hooks. Others creak under the weight of bird cages stuffed full of feathers and bones. There’s all kinds of junk up there, a bear trap on links of metal, a collection of ancient paint cans, wailing and creaking and groaning against the weight. Somewhere inside the tent is some kind of breeze, because every once in a while they shudder and jangle against each other like an awful collection of monstrous wind chimes, clattering endlessly.
There’s another noise, too. From the ground.
Edgar reaches into his jacket and pulls out his long-forgotten flashlight. When he flicks the switch, it turns on easily, illuminating strange hallways of mirrors that twist out of sight. There’s that noise again.
It sort of sounds like someone crying.
“Hello?” Edgar calls, and the sound suddenly stops. There’s a flourish of movement from around one of the corners, and he turns to see a girl with dark hair and a darker dress staring mulishly back at him. As he approaches, he can see that the glasses on her nose are shattered, a cobweb crisscross of cracks across the lenses hiding her eyes. She sniffs.
“Hello,” she says. Her cheeks are pink with tears.
“What are you doing here?” He asks gently. “Who are you?”
“Who am I?” She asks incredulously.
“Am I supposed to know?”
She stares. Slowly but surely, a smile steals across her face, crooked white teeth and pale pink lips. “Come to think of it, no, you’re not supposed to know,” she says, “all the October People do, but you—you’re human, aren’t you?”
“Um,” he says, “yes?”
She laughs and claps her hands, the still-wet tears on her face momentarily forgotten. “Then you’re here to rescue me,” she crows, “I’m so—oh, but of course, you don’t—I’m Tess,” she says, extending her hand, “I was starting to think they’d all forgotten me—well. Maybe they have…but you’re here, anyway!”
Edgar looks down at her hand. “Tess?”
“Yes, yes, that’s me—I’m—“
“I know who you are,” he says, and steps back. His heart thuds painfully in his chest, jackhammering with terror.
“What?” Her brow furrows, and she snatches her hand back. “But—but you just said—“
“I know enough,” he says, “I know that you’re dangerous. You can’t be trusted, and you won’t get a promise out of me.”
“A what? What are you talking about?”
“The boy with the shark’s teeth told me,” Edgar says, shining the light directly into her face. She winces away. “He told me not to trust you—“
“Jimmy?” She interrupts. “And you believed him?”
“He’s a con artist,” she wails, “they’re all con artists! They’re fae! They tricked me too!” She throws her arms up. “This place, it’s one giant organism. It’s a brain, shaping itself to whatever you’re susceptible to, learning what’ll convince you to stick around until sunrise and then digesting you! Each time you speak to someone, this place learns something new about you, and the next person will be more adept at tricking you than the last. They’re like—they’re like fleshy puppets, working for the same master.”
Edgar stares at her. “So…in the context of what you just said,” he starts, “if I believe you about this, I…should not believe you.”
“I’ve talked to…you’re the fourth person I’ve talked to now,” he says, “so why would I assume you’re not tricking me, too? More convincingly than anyone else yet?”
“I—“ Tess stops. Her lips move silently in the shape of words he can’t make out. “Well, when you—huh. I guess—now, wait. Um.” She bites her tongue. “Okay, you’re right, so that doesn’t make me…look great.”
Edgar glances nervously behind him. Any moment now, Nny’s going to stride through the flaps behind him and back him up, get him out of this standoff. All he has to do is keep her talking until he arrives. “So what’s your excuse?” He asks. The flashlight is getting clammy in his sweating hand. “If you’re human, how are you still here? Shouldn’t this place have eaten you too?”
“I—I made a very bad deal,” she says. She wraps her arms around her. “I spoke to—I got caught by the ringleader. He tricked me, made me think—he told me he would help me escape. When I realized what he really meant to do, I gave him my coat to—to try and buy some favor. That sounds dumb. Um. He really liked it. It fit him super good, I guess? It had this…like, tartan-flannel lining? Very cozy. But he agreed to spare my life in exchange for it. If you can call being trapped here life.”
She glances up. The cages creak in the breeze. “Trapped,” she repeats, “and I’m—I’m always freezing.”
Edgar’s stomach twists. This is a trick, he reminds himself. He’s being fucked with.
But if he’s not—
“It’s too late for me,” she says, “you didn’t even come to save me. No one ever does. No one ever will. But you can still run. I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t—didn’t tell you to go. Before you make my mistakes. Before Johnny pulls you into—“
“Into a what?” Nny’s voice asks from behind him, and Edgar turns in relief to see him slicing through the room, sharp in his dark coat and confident. And, um…Sharktooth is also there. Behind him. And…is that the girl from the ferris wheel? “Hello again, Tess, always a pleasure.”
“You already made a deal with him?” Tess half-shouts, “Oh my god—you have to run! Go! Go now and leave me—“
“Tenna,” Nny says, and that soft hesitance from the bank of the river is gone, replaced with a hard, calculated pitch, “grab her.”
“Are you serious? ‘Grab her’?” Tenna says. “Honestly, this is such a boy’s club. Make Jimmy do it.”
“Not until you pay up,” Sharktooth crows, “you lost our bet! I told you this—“
“Now,” Nny snaps. “I don’t care who does it! When I let you stay on at a paid post I figured I was hiring you to do a job, not signing custody papers for a pair of children. Jesus. Look at me! I’m vomiting exposition out of every orifice! It’s like a bad silver age comic! ‘Look out! Superman is turning into a tree!’ Um.” He pauses. “What was I yelling about—that tree comic is super funny out of context. Oh, Tess, right, can you guys—can you handle that?”
Tess stumbles forward, as if to lunge towards the ringmaster in his long, dark coat, but Sharktooth reaches out towards her and she shrinks back, cringing, penitent with dumb animal terror. She gasps—tears bulge in her eyes. In a pantomime of kindness, Tenna takes her by the shoulder and gently pulls her back.
Edgar sees none of this. He stares at Nny helplessly. “You tricked me,” he says.
“Is it our fault if it was incredibly easy?” Sharktooth asks, ignoring the aggressive “shush!” from Tenna. “Was I this dumb when I first showed up? ‘I’m too tired to do my pitch’—that is my pitch! It’s the oldest trick in the book!”
Tenna scoffs. “Is it physically impossible for you to shut up?”
“I didn’t lie to you, Edgar-Edgar-Vargas,” Nny says soothingly, “I can’t lie. Even if I could, I wouldn’t, not to someone like you. Yes, this trap was set for the artist, but she—she won’t be like you. She couldn’t be! Look at you, you starlight specimen, you angel of the day. Our unexpected guest. I do want to go home with you. My home. I want you to stay here, I want to keep you here forever.”
“This is a trick,” Edgar says bitterly, “you’ve all been lying to me, you—wordplay is just a way to lie without breaking any rules. There’s no one who would keep me if they could have something else. You wouldn’t have me if—Devi wouldn’t—“
He breaks off. Nny has stopped looking at him, turning away to pull the flaps of the tent open. That burn runs back up his spine.
Edgar doesn’t know what kind of creature the ringmaster is, but when those nighttime eyes abandon him, his brain crashes down around him like fire and fury, words and music, signifying nothing. There’s so much noise within his own head—the cages above him rattle and creak—
And Nny looks back, and the silence envelops him once more.
“Look,” Nny says, throwing an arm aside, motioning at the expanse of the fairgrounds, “this place is beautiful! And it wants you, Edgar-Edgar-Vargas. Doesn’t anybody love you back there? Would anyone miss you? You would belong here. We would love you here.” He tugs the glove off his right hand as he speaks. Beneath it, Edgar sees the soft glow of jellyfish skin, illuminating the sharp joints of bone beneath. He flexes his fingers, then extends his hand to shake.
“Edgar,” Tess says, tears threatening to dribble down her face, “they can’t hold you here like they can hold me. The sun hasn’t come up yet, you can still run—go back to the turnstiles, go home, go to your friend—she’s still waiting for you, she—“
He hears none of the rest. His eyes are fixed on Nny’s hand, on that skin, glittering like so many glass shards at the bottom of a lake. If he touched it, would it sting him, like the stray tentacles of a man o’ war? Would it burn? So rare and strange—if he doesn’t touch it now, he’ll never get the chance again. The curiosity burns—he wants to know, he wants to learn so much from the ringleader, a creature that illuminates this hollow in the black bottom of the sea, this place where the dead ships live.
He reaches out—