The Phantom Carnival

By M. Elizabeth Ticknor

Originally published in Writers of the Future, Volume 38, by Galaxy Press.

♦ ♦ ♦

Moonlight bounces off the tracks of the St. Louis railyard, refracts off train engines, and dances over the puddled remnants of the day’s rain. I avoid the light as best I can, creeping from shadow to shadow, and tug my newsboy cap tight against my skull. Work’s dried up in town, so it’s time to catch out for someplace new. I hate riding the rails. In town, I can safely be myself: Alice, the freckle-faced girl with short-shorn caramel curls. Out here, I have to pretend to be somebody else: Al, the dirt-smudged boy perpetually in need of a haircut.

Dog-Faced Dan slinks alongside me. He doesn’t need to work at hiding like I do; his lithe form is practically one with the darkness. Most people would find the sight of Danny’s long-stretched face and wolflike teeth unsettling, but to me they’re oddly comforting. He’s the one who hauled me into a boxcar my first night out, who taught me how to protect myself, who glamoured my eyes so I could see the truths most people are blind to. I owe him everything I have—which is my life, mostly, but isn’t that the most important thing anyone has when you get down to brass tacks?

Danny taps my shoulder with a claw-tipped hand and points to a train crawling out of the station, halfway across the yard. “That’s our freight, Alice. Race you!” He dashes ahead before I can argue.

I weave through the yard, trying to stay hidden. I don’t mind if Danny beats me—the magic pumping through his veins leaves him faster than me on my best days—but I can’t afford to miss that train if he catches it. Dangerous for anyone to ride the rails alone at night, let alone a sixteen-year-old girl. I can pass for masculine when I have to, but I’m always better at it when I’m playing off of Danny’s manic energy.

A barrel-chested man in a suit steps out from between a pair of trains, the space between them pooled with shadow. Has to be a railyard bull—he’s dressed too fancy for a hobo. He bolts toward me, arms and legs pumping like well-oiled pistons. I give up hiding and dash for the train, coat flapping in the wind. The local bulls are notorious for brutalizing anyone they catch riding the rails without a ticket, no matter their gender.

The bull’s true nature becomes clear when he dashes into the moonlight. His square jaw, handlebar mustache, and well-muscled body are nothing but a glamour to hide bark-like skin and knotted wooden limbs. I’d figure him for a lot louse like Danny if it weren’t for his milky-white eyes and slack-jawed expression. He’s a carny. Every carny has those same dead eyes. Terror curdles my stomach. Bad enough to be caught by a railyard bull—getting dragged off to the Phantom Carnival is a one-way ticket to trouble. Danny says that the grifters—the monsters that run the Carnival—kidnap people and eat their memories like candy.

The train picks up speed as I rush toward it. I take a deep breath and leap for the ladder on the back of the caboose. The ladder glows blue. Must be made of iron. Danny didn’t like that, I’ll bet—and the railroad bull won’t either. I catch a rung and pull myself up. It doesn’t burn me like it would a lot louse or carny. If Danny hadn’t taught me about the Carnival, I’d be a scrub like anyone else.

The carny grabs my left leg, his hand tight as a vise, and pulls me back down toward the tracks. Panic lances through my stomach and I scramble to hang on.

Danny jumps off the roof of the caboose, lips curled in a canid snarl. “Let go, you stupid bogey!” He tackles the carny and sinks a too-wide mouthful of teeth into the big lug’s right shoulder.

The carny roars with pain. His grip loosens.

I take advantage of the distraction and lash out with my right foot. My heel batters the carny’s jaw, then slams full-force into his eye socket. He lets out an agonized bellow and crumples onto swiftly receding train tracks, clutching at his ruined eye.

I clamber onto the roof and swivel around in a panic. “Danny!”

Danny vaults off the carny’s back and dashes after the train with an energy I could never replicate. He scrambles up the ladder, palms sizzling from the iron’s touch, and tumbles onto the roof beside me. His chest heaves with peals of laughter.

I shudder and stare at the tracks. We’re moving fast enough now that they rush behind the train like a river. “That was too close.”

“Are you joshing me? That was great.”

“I almost got taken!”

Danny’s laughter tapers off to a chuckle. He rolls to his feet. “Don’t worry, I wouldn’t have let him get you. Even if he managed to haul you off to the Carnival, I’d hunt you down before they fleeced you.” Before they stole my memories.

I narrow my eyes and wrinkle my nose. “What makes you so sure you could?”

“Because I’m me.” Danny’s face splits in an ear-to-ear grin, jagged teeth gleaming in the moonlight.

I roll my eyes. Danny’s confidence is infectious, but sometimes his head gets too big for his shoulders. “Let’s find somewhere to hunker down. It’s cold up here.” Wind stings my face; damp air numbs my fingers.

I wonder at the brazenness of the carny who tried to snatch me straight from a railyard as we hop from the caboose to the next car. The ever-rising number of kids desperate enough to leave home in search of work is making the grifters bold. They’ve sent carnies out to abduct people from trains and hobo jungles. Danny’s even seen a few lurking in big city alleyways. Worst part is, there’s no one we can ask for help. Most people are scrubs, unable to see through the grifters’ glamours—and how are they supposed to notice the uptick in missing persons when the whole country’s mired in a depression? Folks just up and leave home every day, and you never know who’s coming back and who’s gone forever.

Danny and I scale boxcar rooftops until we spot an open door up ahead, a yawning black opening in the side of a car. Swinging over the side of an open boxcar is dangerous, but so is clinging to the roof of a rushing train. All it takes is one ill-timed tunnel to suffocate you or knock you off your rooftop perch. Best we get inside.

Danny swoops over the side and into the car. My chest tightens with jealousy as he sticks the landing; it isn’t fair how easy this sort of thing comes to him. I don’t envy him the process he went through to acquire his tricks, but the gifts and glamours the grifters wove into his flesh almost make up for the memories they took from him.


I grab onto the roof’s edge and slide my legs off. Wind pulls at them like a swift-moving current. It reminds me of the time my parents went on vacation to Montauk when I was six years old. I snuck off while Mama and Papa were touring the lighthouse and fell off a rock into the ocean. I floundered back to shore, but I’ve been afraid of swimming ever since.

Halfway down the side of the boxcar, my hands slip—I scrabble for purchase, but find nothing solid to hold on to. I slide off the roof with a shriek. My heart hammers in my chest as I anticipate the agony of slamming into the track and tumbling under the wheels. If I’m lucky, I’ll only lose a leg. If I’m not lucky, I’m dead.

A pair of hands snatches me out of the air. Not Danny’s, they’re far too large. And furry. Why are they—

My knees bash the lip of the boxcar door as the stranger hauls me inside. I bite back the yelp of pain that longs to burst free. When I’m on the road, I can’t afford to be seen as a girl; I need to fit in, just one of the boys. Anyone who says boys don’t cry is a liar. I’ve seen loads of tears since I first caught out. Even so, I can’t afford to raise suspicion.

As my eyes adjust to the dimness of the boxcar, I spot half a dozen silhouettes. The boy who dragged me into the boxcar is a lot louse. His glamour is stocky and well-muscled, the hardworking farm-boy look. His actual body is massive, bigger than most grown men. He’s covered head to toe in thick white fur like a yeti, but his features look mostly human. He’s got big brown eyes, warm and inviting.

I glance around the car and my eyes widen. There are seven people including me and Danny, and I’m the only one who isn’t a lot louse. One boy shimmers amethyst-purple in the moonlight, like the inside of a geode crystal; another has skin so pale I can see clear through to his veins, his organs, even his skeleton. The last two look like twins—at the very least, their glamours are identical—but one’s true form has skin like crusted lava that spider-webs with red-hot cracks every time he moves, while the other looks to be made of living ice. They’re holding hands. I’m amazed the ice-boy’s hand doesn’t melt in his twin’s fiery grip.

The yeti checks me over for injuries, eyes brimming with concern, hands exploring far too much of my body for comfort. “You okay there, kid?”

I grunt, assume my most masculine voice, and pull away before his hands reach my chest. “I’m fine. Just scraped up.”

Danny sidles up, interposes himself between me and the yeti, and gives his most fiercely charming smile. “Easy there, friend. I appreciate you catching my little brother and all, but he doesn’t much like to be touched.”

The yeti arches an eyebrow. “He’s your brother? The two of you don’t, uh, look that much related.”

“He’s adopted.”

I affect a glare in Danny’s direction. “You’re adopted.”

Danny chuckles and throws his hands up as if in surrender. “We’re both adopted.” He glances around the room, takes in the crowd. “Don’t worry. He looks like a scrub, but he’s savvy.” He tugs at his over-large, pointed ears with claw-tipped fingers.

The yeti grins. “Good to know.” He sits in the boxcar’s door frame and dangles his feet over the edge. “I’m Earl. And you are?”

Danny drapes an arm over my shoulder. “Dog-Faced Dan. This is Al.”

The walking geode crystal speaks up, his voice strangely breezy. “Short for Albert?”

I shake my head. “Just Al.”

Danny gestures at his fellow lot lice. “Seems like bad luck, so many of us bunched up in one place.”

Earl grunts. “The twins have been together forever. The rest of us met in boxcars or jungles. Figured there was safety in numbers. Where are you two headed?”

I shrug. “Nowhere particular.”

Earl smiles. “We’re headed to Chicago to catch the World’s Fair. ‘Century of Progress’ and all that. You two should come along—I hear it’s quite the show.”

I shiver despite the tight press of people in the boxcar and shake my head. “There ain’t going to be work there–nothing worth having, anyway. The Fair’s been open for months. All the best jobs are bound to be taken.”

“There’ll be food, at least,” Earl says. “Food and company and stuff right out of science fiction novels.” He leans in toward Danny and whispers, “Plus, there’s supposed to be a back-alley doctor there. Someone who can bring back our memories.”

Danny’s ears perk up like an overexcited puppy’s. “Where’d you hear that?”

“I met a yegg in Los Angeles. Looked human, but he was savvy as all get-out. Said he used to be a lot louse, but the doc cured him—got his memories back and everything.”

Danny lets out a low whistle. He leans close and whispers in my ear. “I’m thinking we ought to head toward Chicago.”

My eyes narrow. Something about Earl’s story doesn’t add up. Danny and I have been traveling together for almost a year, and in all that time I’ve never heard of anyone being able to reverse the grifters’ handiwork.

I glance skeptically in Earl’s direction. “This yegg, how do you know he wasn’t joshing you?”

Earl smirks and tousles my cap, smushing it down on my short-cropped curly hair. “Relax, kid. I can smell a grifter a mile away.”

My whole body tenses. I hate being patronized.

Danny pushes Earl’s hand away, gently but firmly. “He don’t like being touched, remember?” Earl shuffles back a few steps; his expression turns sheepish. Danny turns to me. “I get why you’re nervous, Al, but if this is real, I need it. You don’t know what it’s like, living like this.”

I bristle. “I can’t go home any more than you can!”

“At least you know you have one.” Danny’s ever-present grin fades, tainted with long-buried sadness. “You remember your parents. You remember your name. Dog-Faced Dan isn’t my real name—it’s just a placeholder. My memories are patchier than the coat I’m wearing, and I want them back.”

“I thought you wanted to make new memories. You’re always talking about seeing new places, doing new things—”

“Just because I want to make new memories doesn’t mean I want to give up on the old ones.” Danny pulls me into a hug and presses his forehead against mine. “Please. I need this, and I’d rather do it with you than without.”

Oh, God. If I say no, he’s going to do it anyway. He’ll leave me to ride the rails all on my lonesome. The idea of trying to find someone else to watch my back makes me sick to my stomach. Who else could I even trust with my secrets? Some boys might do me right, for sure, but how would I know them from the ones that would take advantage of me in a heartbeat?

I bite my lip hard enough to draw blood. The copper-penny flavor floods my tongue, grounding me back in reality. I can’t lose Danny. I don’t want to lose him. “All right.” I take a shuddering breath and nod.

Danny pulls back and lets out a whoop of triumph. Earl gives him a friendly embrace. The other lot lice welcome him into the fold as well, cheering and circling around him, pressing close in their excitement. Earl backs off and sits in a corner of the boxcar, letting the others do the talking now that he’s got his way. His posture is relaxed, but he watches everything like a hawk. His gaze never strays far from me. Seems he doesn’t trust me any more than I do him.

I want to be happy for Danny, but part of me is even more afraid of what might happen at the World’s Fair than of riding the rails on my own. Who will Danny be once he gets his memories back? How much will he change? Will he want anything to do with me? What if he changes from someone who accepts me for who I am into someone who will take advantage?

I sit in the corner opposite Earl and wrap my coat as tight around me as it will go. I want to believe Danny will always care about me, that he’s good right down to his core, but no amount of coats or blankets can warm the chill of fear that’s wormed its way into my heart.

♦ ♦ ♦

Chicago bustles like a fresh-shook beehive. The World’s Fair sprawls between 12th and 39th Street, filled with Art Deco and Moderne-style buildings painted in a riotous rainbow of colors. The streets are jam-packed with all kinds of folks: fancy-dressed couples strut through the streets in bolero jackets and puff-sleeve blouses; families with hand-sewn, heavy-patched clothes gawp at the finery surrounding them; dirt-smeared children slink through the streets, sucking on striped candy sticks.

What stands out most to me are the smiles—sometimes even grins, all the way up to people’s eyes. That’s not a common sight these days. I’ve been staring at the scars that run through the heart of America since Papa lost his job at the car factory and we had to move into one of those ramshackle Hoovervilles. Seeing this much happiness fills me with hope for the future of our country—for my future, even. I haven’t dared to hope like this since I ran away from home.

Neither hope nor joy finds Earl’s pack of lot lice. They remain stern and focused, scouring street after street on the hunt for their doctor. Danny keeps to the back, faking calm, but he’s on the alert, eyes and ears swiveling like he expects to see carnies around every corner. I keep pace with him, arms wrapped around my chest.

Danny glances down at me. “You all right, Al? You’re looking mighty low.” I wish we were alone, that we didn’t have to pretend. I like it better when he calls me Alice.

“It’s a lot to take in, is all. So much color. So much noise.” Not many lot lice, though. A place like this, I’d expect to see at least one in a hundred, maybe even one in twenty, but Danny and his new friends are the only ones wandering the streets.

Danny chuckles. “I like the bustle. It feels comfortable. Familiar.”

“Maybe you were a city boy, then?”

Danny shrugs. “Maybe. I just know I like crowds.”

Earl falls into step beside us. “We’ve found something.” He shepherds us to an alleyway entrance glamoured to look like a wall stretching between two buildings. On the other side of the illusion, at least thirty lot lice are lined up in front of a navy-blue door. A broken board mounted above the door frame has the word ‘Doctor’ scrawled on it in chalk.

The hairs on the back of my neck prickle. This feels wrong. I grab Danny’s hand and squeeze. He squeezes back and whispers, “I know.”

I suck in a sharp breath. “Then why?”

“Because it might be real.” Danny takes a spot in the alley. I huddle beside him, trying to ignore the sick feeling building up in my stomach. Earl sits behind everyone else, big enough he blocks the exit. The alley is officially full.

The door swings inward and a woman in a nurse’s uniform peeks through. Her grandmotherly glamour contrasts with the youthful glow that hides beneath. She surveys the gathered crowd and smiles. “The doctor will see you now.” She beckons the fish-man at the front of the line. “Come in. Come in.”

One by one, the lot lice enter the doctor’s office, but nobody leaves—not through this door, anyway. A couple of people start to get second thoughts and shamble back toward the exit, but Earl talks them down and convinces them to resume their places in line. The muscles in my back coil tighter with every lot louse that walks through those doors—it gets to where I can barely move.

The twins enter at the same time. That just leaves Danny, Earl, and me. I shiver so hard that Danny drapes his coat over my shoulders. It doesn’t help, not really, but I appreciate the gesture.

When it’s Danny’s turn, I walk up beside him. The nurse shakes her head and waves me off. “Not you, dearie.”

My brow furrows. “You let the twins go in together.”

The nurse smiles sadly. “The twins were both lot lice.”

Danny scowls. “Al’s savvy.”

The nurse shakes her head and says, “Savvy isn’t enough, young pup. This one doesn’t need treatment. He should go back home, where he came from.”

I jut my jaw forward stubbornly. “Don’t have a home. Danny’s the closest thing to family I’ve got.”

Earl comes up behind me. His hand is so big it envelops my entire shoulder. “You heard her, kid. You’re not welcome here.”

I shrug his grip off, nostrils flared. I don’t care if he’s twice my size; I won’t let him intimidate me. “Keep your paws off me, you big greaseball!”

Earl smacks the side of my head against a wall hard enough that my ears ring and spots flash before my eyes. I collapse like a rag doll, eyes wide.

Everything seems to happen in fits and flashes. Danny howls in protest. Kneels before me. Strokes my hair. Whispers words that don’t make sense to my addled brain.

A massive paw lands on Danny’s shoulder. Earl tucks Danny under one arm. Danny bites and kicks, but Earl’s fur is too thick. He hauls Danny through that doorway like a writhing toddler and slams it so hard my teeth rattle.

The door vanishes. That hastily written sign clatters to the ground and lands at my feet.

♦ ♦ ♦

I spend most of the winter on my lonesome, wearing Danny’s coat over my own. It smells like him at first, a weird mix of dog fur and autumn leaves, but eventually all that’s left is road dust and my own sweat. I think about going home every night, but then I remember how skinny Mama was getting and the frown lines etched into Papa’s face. I can’t burden them with an extra mouth to feed—they’ve got enough to deal with on their own.

I work when I have to, but mostly I keep to myself. Danny always said that if I don’t want to get outed as a girl, it’s best to only speak when spoken to, and I can’t bring myself to get close to anyone else. I only trusted him with my secret because he trusted me with his.

Carnies crop up more often as the weeks drag on. There’s one on every train, sometimes more. Some pose as railyard bulls, but more ride trains like hobos, making friends with lonely kids in boxcars, wandering off with newfound friends and never coming back.

The fear of getting stolen grows so strong, I avoid anyone wearing a glamour. Most of them are probably lot lice, but the only way I can tell for sure is to look at their eyes—and if you get close enough to see a carny’s eyes, odds are it’s too late. I trade three loaves of stolen bread for an iron pocketknife at a hobo jungle outside of San Diego. It weighs heavy in my pocket, but I keep it with me always; the blade’s blue glow is strangely comforting. Lot louse or carny, iron hurts them all the same.

Two months after Danny was taken, I’m catching a freight out of San Antonio when I spot Earl weaving through the yard. The white-furred giant slinks into a refrigerator car three trains over, glancing around like he’s afraid of being followed. My chest tightens with rage, terror, and a deep longing for revenge. Earl stole Danny from me—I want to take something just as important from him.

That refrigerator car, though . . . I hate refrigerator cars. If the door shuts with you inside, you’re history. More than one gaycat’s climbed into a reefer, gotten locked in, and frozen to death. They’re good places to hide, though, if you’re bundled enough to survive the trip.

I pull Danny’s coat tight around my shoulders, pop the collar, and stalk toward the reefer. My fingers slide into the pockets of Danny’s coat, find that pocketknife, and clutch it like a lifeline.

Just before I climb in, a fiery glow catches my eye. Lava-boy emerges from the shadows and charges at me. I dodge, but the living ice sculpture catches me in a full-body tackle. His eyes, once brilliantly blue, have gone cold and milky. He’s turned carny. I scream and flick open my pocketknife. He slams my hand against the ground over and over with grim efficiency. The blade slips from bruised fingers and clatters between a pair of railway ties.

Lava-boy rushes past me, into the reefer, and tackles Earl into the side of the car. Earl lets out a loud grunt, then hurls lava-boy against the opposite wall. The whole car shakes from the impact. I thought they were friends—why are they fighting?

Ice-boy turns his head toward the reefer when lava-boy hits the wall, a puzzled expression on his face. I take advantage of his distraction and fumble for my knife. Rock—rock—blade. It’s sharp enough I cut myself on it, but I don’t care. I grab the wooden handle with my bloodied hand and take a swing at my attacker, slicing into his arm. He howls with pain. The wound blisters and blackens. He backs away before I can cut him again, clutching at his now-useless arm, and turns toward the boxcar—just as Earl throws lava-boy at him. The two carnies collapse into a heap.

The train starts moving. No time to second-guess my instincts. I dash for the reefer car, squeeze past Earl’s hulking form, and scramble inside.

Earl studies me for a moment, then glances back toward the doors. He doesn’t recognize me. I don’t know whether to be relieved or offended. He hovers near the boxcar entrance until the train is moving too fast for the twins to climb on. Then he scoops a tattered bindle off the floor and leans against a wooden wall, eyes haunted.

I brandish my pocketknife menacingly. “Hey, Earl.”

Earl flinches at the sight of the iron and tilts his head inquisitively. “How’d you know my name?”

The lack of recognition on his face infuriates me. “You dragged a friend of mine through a magic door a few months back. Danny.” His expression remains confused. I roll my eyes and clarify, “Dog-Faced Dan.”

His brow furrows. “You’re that savvy brat. Albert?”

Al. Where is he? Where’s Danny?”

“Back at the Carnival, if he’s lucky.”

“How’s that lucky?”

“If he’s still there, they ain’t finished fleecing him yet.”

My thoughts grind to a halt as I struggle to process Earl’s statement. “But—he’s a lot louse, he’s already been fleeced.” Then again, so were the twins. The memory of ice-boy’s milky gaze makes me shiver.

“A lot louse is just a carny who managed to escape with some of their memories intact. The grifters like to finish their meals. Time at the Carnival don’t pass the same way it does here, though—they might not have finished with him yet.”

My cheeks grow hot; my grip on the pocketknife tightens. “Why didn’t they fleece you?” I want to punctuate the question with my blade, but I keep my hand steady.

Earl sighs. “I made a deal with the grifters—I’d bring back their lost toys in exchange for keeping my brainpan intact. They tried to back out of the bargain once I held up my end, though. I gave them the slip, but they’ve been after me for weeks.” Earl laughs darkly. “Deal or not, I’ll bet they fleece everyone in the end.”

Part of me feels sorry for him, but the rest of me says he deserves it. I refuse to let the pity sneak onto my face. “I need to get Danny back. I have to get him out of there before—” I can’t bring myself to finish the thought, let alone the sentence.

“Good luck with that, kid. You don’t even know how to find the Phantom Carnival, let alone get him out.”

“No. But you do. You know how to get in and out.” I shift my blade so the moonlight glints off it. “And you’re going to show me how.”

♦ ♦ ♦

I’d rather arrive at the Phantom Carnival over-armed than under-prepared, so I sneak into a dump and collect everything that glows: a screwdriver with a half-rotted handle, the mangled inner workings of a typewriter, and a pair of rusty sewing shears. Earl said the grifters have the same weakness to iron as carnies and lot lice, and I plan to take full advantage of that. I wrap the screwdriver’s handle with cloth so it’s easier to grip, twist the typewriter pieces into caltrops, and break the shears into two long blades. Then I sharpen everything until the edges gleam in the moonlight.

Once that’s sorted, I head to the nearest dead-end alley and draw an outline of a door on the wall in chalk. I cut the top of my arm and smear a bloody handprint where the doorknob should be. I swallow the lump in my throat and say, “My bindle’s packed. I’m ready to walk the midway.” After a moment, to steel my nerves, I knock on the wall.

Emerald-green wood kisses my knuckles. A door that wasn’t there a moment before swings inward. A grifter stands on the other side: twice the height of a man, rail-thin, dressed in a pinstriped suit with a tailcoat and a black top hat. Skeletal fingers stretch out like spider legs, ending in razor-sharp blades. A shadowy smudge clings to the place where its eyes should be; its shark-toothed grin stretches from ear to ear as it steps aside and motions for me to walk past.

I step onto the cobblestone midway of the Phantom Carnival, heart pounding, teeth clenched. The grifter lets me pass without issue. Earl said the ones guarding the doors are always friendly—until someone tries to leave.

The air has a strange, metallic tang. The sky is black—no moon, no stars, not even any clouds. Strategically placed gas lamps light up row after row of buildings, tents, food stands, and carnival booths. Colors blaze so vividly they make my eyes hurt—this place makes the World’s Fair seem pale by comparison. But the shadows are also deeper, the buildings taller and leaner.

Carnies man booths and stands, resembling everything from wood or stone statues to bizarre combinations of human and animal anatomy. They wave and grin at passersby, but their empty stares make me shiver head to toe. There are a few humans here and there, but most everyone walking the midway is some degree of lot louse.

Tucked away at the end of an alley, much like the street where I first saw it, is a familiar navy-blue door. The word ‘Doctor’ is written above it in that same hasty scrawl. I pull the pocketknife out of my coat, steel my nerves, and knock.

The old-but-young nurse opens the door. I push my way inside, shove her against a wall, and press the knife against her throat before she can say boo. Her flesh sizzles at the blade’s touch, but her eyes aren’t hollow—she’s still got memories left. I snarl, “Where’s Dog-Faced Dan?”

Her lower lip quivers and her eyes dart back and forth while she parses my question. “Down the hall. Seventh door on the right.”

“How can you do this? How can you help the grifters hurt people?”

Eyes wide, she whispers, “Some folks are better off not knowing who they used to be. The grifters glom onto people who are hurting and take the pain away.”

“The grifters take everything away.” I shove her aside, drop the knife back into my pocket, and rush off to find him. The hall stretches weirdly. The farther I go, the taller and thinner the doors become. The seventh door on the right is twice my height, but so slender I have to turn sideways and squeeze to step through. It opens, not into a doctor’s office or waiting room, but onto a forest of thick, tall redwoods that stretch along a grassy embankment. From this side, the door stands solitary in the open air, almost like a tree in its own right; its frame is adorned with ornate carvings of wolves chasing rabbits, mice fleeing snakes, and eagles snagging fish in their talons.

Holes have been dug out beneath some of the redwoods on the embankment. Roots act like wooden bars for the earthen cell Danny paces in. It takes me a moment to recognize him. His dark hair blends into a fresh coat of fur that covers his body. He has a tail, now—a big, bushy thing that dangles down to his knees. But it’s definitely Danny. I know the face under that fur, I know those eyes. They’re still dark, still human—still his, at least for the moment.

I get as close as I can, press against the bars, and whisper, “Hey, Danny.”

Danny flinches and whips around to face me, claws and teeth bared.

I drop the shear, back up, and hold my hands out to show I’m not a threat. It’s been months since he saw me last. I’m covered in road grime, I’m skinnier than I used to be—it makes sense he wouldn’t recognize me immediately. “It’s okay, it’s me. I’m going to get you out of here.”

Danny’s brow furrows. “Who are you?”

My heart lurches in my chest. It’s not that he doesn’t recognize me—he doesn’t remember me. Blood drains from my face as I try to cope with the devastation. “I’m—I’m a friend.” There’ll be time for proper introductions later.

I cut at the redwood roots barring Danny’s escape with one of the shear-blades. It isn’t made for sawing, but it slices through those roots like butter—right up until one whips out like an octopus arm and twines around my legs. A second root latches onto my wrist, holding my hand in place.

A grifter snakes out from between the trees, dressed in a bizarrely proportioned doctor’s coat, with a stethoscope draped around its neck. Its facial features are just as muted and indistinct as the others of its kind, but a head mirror gleams on its forehead like a single, unblinking eye.

Danny whimpers and scrambles into the deepest corner of his cage. My joints lock up, legs trembling so hard I can barely stand.

The grifter approaches me, crouching down until its horrific approximation of a face is inches from mine. “What do you think you’re doing, little boy?” It tastes the air with a snake-like tongue. An impossibly wide grin spreads across its face. “I beg your pardon. Little girl.”

My stomach clenches. I’ve gotten good at passing—the idea that it can just know like that is unsettling. “I’m—I’m taking Danny home.” I slip my free hand into the pocket with the iron pocketknife, but keep the weapon hidden.

“Who? Him?” The grifter points at Danny and tilts its head. “He is home. There’s more of my world in him than there is of yours.”

My temper flares. “Only because you took it from him!”

“I take pain and give peace. I turn people into living works of art that know nothing of the ills they once suffered.”

“They don’t remember the good things, either.”

“Any memory can be painful, child.” It sniffs the air again. “All your memories of my pet, even the sweetest ones, have been tainted with grief. I can smell it. I could absolve you of that grief, of that pain.”

I shake my head. “No! It’s mine. You can’t have it.”

It studies me for a long moment, then says, “I’ll let him free if you give something of yourself in return.”

Why is it bargaining? This has to be a trick. “How do I know you won’t just take all my memories and finish him off for dessert?”

“Memories taste sweeter when freely given. Besides, it’s best not to overindulge.”

I swallow hard. “How much do you want?”

“A day, perhaps. Two, at most. Idle moments here and there.”

It’s lying. I know it’s lying. But if it gets close enough, I can cut it. I take a shaky breath, slide my hand inside the jacket to grab the pocketknife, and nod.

The grifter slithers close, right hand extended. I flick the pocketknife open and swipe at the grifter’s arm. It bats my hand aside, knocking the blade from my fingers, and plunges a finger into my forehead. It doesn’t hurt—if anything, it feels euphoric. My memories burn bright and glorious, more potent than ever before.

Then bits of myself begin to vanish at the speed of thought. The grifter’s not taking whole memories, not yet, but it’s taking names—every instance of my name, thought, heard, or spoken. It doesn’t just take my parents’ names—it takes their faces, blurred and smudged as if I were looking through a dirty lens. Then the name of my hometown and any memory of how to get there. It’s too much, he’s taking too much—

I scramble for the screwdriver hidden in my other pocket and stab it into the grifter’s right eye socket. The grifter jerks back and howls, flailing in an attempt to shake the tool free without touching it.

I snatch the second shear-blade from its makeshift holster and fight the searing pain in my hand long enough to stab it into the grifter’s heart. The skin around its chest wound blisters. Those blisters erupt into boils, then massive, cancerous knots that spread through its torso, down its legs, and up its shoulders. The grifter’s swollen body explodes in a spray of black ichor, sending my weapons flying. The screwdriver pierces my shoulder tip-first, but what makes me scream is the iron searing my flesh like a red-hot cattle brand. The shear-blade stabs into the ground at Danny’s feet.

I pull the tool out of my shoulder by the cloth-wrapped handle and chip away at the roots that bind me. Once I pull free, I wrap the shears’ handles in tattered remnants of the grifter’s coat and cut the final bars of Danny’s cell. I try to ignore the way my skin shimmers, pearlescent, as I motion for him to leave the cage. “Come on, Danny. I know the way out. I’ll keep you safe.”

He hesitates, staring at the grifter’s still-bubbling remains, then studies me for a long moment, nostrils flared. He breathes deep, lets out a jagged sigh, and steps out of the enclosure.

♦ ♦ ♦

The first thing Danny does when we slip back to reality is complain about the cold, so we head for the railyard to catch a southbound train. No specific destination in mind, not yet. Just somewhere warm. I study my features in a puddle as Danny peruses the railyard. The pearlescent sheen isn’t limited to my arms—every inch of my body shimmers in the moonlight. My hair glimmers with every movement. No more caramel curls. They’re white as bone, now.

Danny finds an open boxcar and ushers me inside. We tuck into a dark corner and sit together, pressed tight for warmth. Danny gives me an awkward smile. “Thanks for getting me out of there.”

I force a smile in return. “No problem.” I’m lying, of course. It was a problem, will always be a problem, now and forever. I’ve lost enough of myself that I’ll never be able to go home—but he’s lost even more than I have, so I can’t bring myself to complain to him about it.

“What’s your name?”

I bite my lip. “I don’t remember.”

“Me either. Guess we’re even.” He leans back against the wall. “You called me Danny?”

I nod. “You used to go by Dog-Faced Dan, but I always liked Danny better.”

“Danny it is. We could call you Pearl, if you want.”

I wrinkle my nose. “What kind of name is that?”

Danny chuckles. “The same kind of name as Dog-Faced Dan.”

I shake my head. “No, I want something—simple. Boyish. It’s not safe to be a girl on the road.” My throat tightens. “You taught me that.”

Danny thinks for a minute. “What about Jack? Short for Jacqueline. Besides, Jack’s the hero in all the best fairytales.”

I weigh the name in my mind and nod slowly. “That’ll work.” I hold my breath for a long moment, then ask the question I’ve been dreading. “What are you going to do now?”

Danny shrugs. “I’ll probably just keep drifting. I know how to survive out here—it’s everything else that’s muddled. What about you?”

“I’ll be doing the same. I couldn’t find home anymore, even if I wanted to.” My fingers pluck at the lining of Danny’s coat.

Danny gives me the side-eye. “We could stick together, if you want. Look out for each other.”

My breath hitches in my chest. “Really? I wasn’t sure you’d want to—I mean, you don’t know me from Adam.”

Danny laughs. “You know more about me than I do. I’d like to get acquainted again.” He holds out his hand and gives me a caring smile. Good right down to its core.

I take his hand and squeeze it, fighting back tears. “I’d like that, too.” The grin that spreads across my face isn’t forced this time; it’s massive, the kind of smile you feel in your eyes. Danny and I may have lost important parts of who we were, but maybe we’ll be able to find out who we are together.

I drape Danny’s coat over our chests like a blanket and we snuggle in for the night. It’s not comfortable, exactly, but it feels more like home than my patchy memories of a house and a bed. Part of me misses having a family, but it’s more of a vague longing than something sharp and poignant. Really, at this point, Danny and I are family, and that helps in some strange way. We owe each other everything we have—which is our lives, mostly, but isn’t that the most important thing anyone has when you get down to brass tacks?

♦ ♦ ♦