As an orphaned sixteen-year-old, Lynette was haunted by the ghost of Mirror Boy, the drowned child who replaced her reflection. Ten years later, she’s built herself a new life, but all that is threatened when Mirror Boy returns, warning of danger. A hunter has come for both of them, and unless Lynette can figure out what’s going on, they will both perish.
THE CIRCUS GIRL
I was twenty-six when I started seeing Mirror Boy again. He showed up without warning on a Monday, as I stood over the sink scrubbing sleep from my eyes and stale whiskey from my mouth. It’s one of my favorite simple pleasures: the cold metallic tang of water, the clean bitter smell of soap. I straightened up for my towel, and there was his ugly mug in the mirror instead of mine. I dropped the towel. “Fuck!”
Mirror Boy had not changed in a decade. He was still gaunt and hollow-eyed and in bad need of a haircut. Patches of discoloration bloomed under the brown of his skin. “Hello, Lynette,” he whispered in his crushed-paper voice.
“No,” I said, and walked right out of the bathroom, my face still dripping wet.
“Did something happen?” asked my roommate, Shane, as I stomped into the kitchen, wiping myself dry on the cotton of my nightgown sleeve. “I heard you shouting.” She stood unwashed and uncombed over the counter, a ladle in one hand and curious concern etched on her thin features. Coffee sub boiled on the stove and the smell of fried egg lingered.
“I cut myself shaving,” I said. In my chest my heartbeat with the rhythm of a rail carriage, passing by.
“Ooooookay,” she said, and went back to spooning bean goop onto plates. Shane was an angel, used to the oceanic swing of my moods. She put up with far too much from me.
A dresser cabinet stood by the main door, marking the transition between the kitchen and living areas. Its top was choked with detritus: keyholders, loose coins, half-curdled tins of lip balm. On it sat an oval mirror, framed by a mosaic of recycled bottle glass. I went up to it, not straight on, but cautiously and sideways—as though flanking an enemy—and leaned until it caught my reflection. I prayed it would show my untamable curls and the eyebags I knew and loathed.
“I need to talk to you,” Mirror Boy said.
“Fuck off,” I said, to which Shane went, “Uh, what?”
“Nothing.” I shuffled away from the mirror and flounced down next to the dining table, trying not to breathe too harshly. After ten years spread over the tumult of late adolescence and early adulthood, I had thoroughly convinced myself that my year with Mirror Boy was all made up, an artifact of a traumatized mind. A coping mechanism. But I was better now. The broken girl I used to be had grown up into a functional adult. Why had he come back?
The boiling kettle whistled as Shane thumped breakfast in front of me, gelatinous and greasy. She poured the steaming sub into two oversized enamel mugs. “Here,” she said. “You look like you could use an extra helping.”
We ate. Or at least, Shane ate, while I mixed bean and egg into a brownish slurry on my plate. All was quiet except for the chittering of the newsprinter, spooling its thin scroll onto the dining table. When it stopped, Shane tore off the printout and scanned its fuss-less, tiny text. “Great squid. There’s been another murder.”
“Murder?” I said, not really processing the words.
“Yes. In Darlingfort. Probably that same serial killer that’s been going around.” She turned the chit towards me. “Here, look. Seem like anyone you know?”
I squinted at the victim’s picture, monochrome and pixelated, only slightly larger than a toenail. It looked vaguely like a man, possibly brown-haired, maybe thirty, probably white. I shrugged.
Shane’s expression softened. “You used to live in Darlingfort, didn’t you?”
“That was a long time back.” When I used to be a circus girl. When I last had Mirror Boy as my reflection. I shifted uneasily in my chair. The glare of the mirror on the dresser had a weight to it, as though the kid was trying to claw his way out. “Listen, I’d better get going.”
“What, to work?” Shane looked at the kitchen clock. “Is the salon even open?”
“Yeah,” I mumbled, pushing my chair back.
“You haven’t eaten anything.”
“I’m not hungry.”
Shane’s worry peaked. “Hey. Is something wrong?”
“I’m fine,” I said. It was a lie, and it sounded like a lie.
I had to stand by the dresser while I put on my boots. “Why are you avoiding me?” Mirror Boy asked from his corner. “You know I’m here.”
“Shut up,” I hissed, soft enough to keep it from Shane. “Shut up shut up shut up.”
It was clear outside, the air as crisp as winters ever get anymore. A soft breeze teased hair and fabrics. I took the midlevel network, high enough above the water the reflections wouldn’t bother me. Back in Darlingfort the canals were sludge, so I never had this problem.
Back in Darlingfort, my relationship with Mirror Boy was different.
Once upon a time I was a circus girl, just like my mother. Once upon a time I had an apple-cheeked face and an easy, gap-toothed smile. Once upon a time I used to throw knives and juggle and spin fire.
Then my mother died when I was fourteen, and I was like a dinghy cast out into an icy ocean. The other women in the circus tried to protect me as much as they could, but I eventually found out what people were willing to do to young girls when they no longer had the protection of a lion tamer.
There was an escape artist, Alfous: almost forty, with a slow-growing belly and a grease-slicked moustache. He tried to hold himself up as a gentleman around me, but I tried not to be around him at all. Until one day the desire burst from him like a swollen river, turbulent and inescapable. He chased me down in the damp of night when the others had gone out to get drunk, and pinned me against the knifeboard.
But I was stronger than I looked, and I kicked and screamed and cracked a cheekbone with my heel. So he clubbed me over the head, slapped me in chains, and threw me in the water tank. I woke with my lungs burning and a wall of green murk crushing me. I thought I was going to die, until I saw that there was a boy in the water. He looked my age, with dark eyes and dark hair and skin yellow as the moon. “You can do it,” he said. I didn’t know him, but seeing I wasn’t alone calmed my panic. It was then I found out how far I could bend my elbows, and how easy it was, with my thin wrists, to slip from the vise of the chains. I got my hands free, I got out of the tank, and I survived.
I survived, and a week later Alfous mysteriously disappeared. No notes left behind, nor any evidence. The rumor around the circus was that he’d been sent to feed Kraken, hungry in the sludgy deep. If anyone suspected the scrawny girl with the purpling across her forehead might have been involved, they said nothing. I volunteered to be the new escape artist, because it turns out I had a natural talent for it. I was sixteen.
Anyway, that’s how I met Mirror Boy. When I climbed out of that tank, furious and dripping and bruised in the head, I found that my reflection had disappeared entirely. In its place was the boy who had been in the water with me. Every mirror or glass pane I looked at was graced by his presence, narrow and morose and slightly misshapen. I bled from the palms stealing a shard of factory window for my room, and in that sacred space where no one else was allowed—or no one else dared to go—I spent hours with Mirror Boy. I would sit by the cold glass in the afternoons, in between rehearsals and the start of the night’s performances, and I would let spill all the petty grievances of the day. Who had looked at me the wrong way, who had wounded me with cutting words. Mirror Boy never said much. He listened and told me I was right, or that he agreed with me. And I needed that. As time went on I started talking about my hopes for the future, about how I wanted to leave the circus and leave Darlingfort before it broke me like it broke everyone else. And he would just smile and nod and say he believed I could do it.
Some days, I missed knowing what my face looked like. Some days, I was glad I didn’t have to.
But I got older, and I got out of the circus. Escaping was my forte, after all, and I found I could bend my mind and will as easily as I could my body. People were willing to pay a lot of money to spend nights with me. I saved that money and used it to find a new and better place to live. To buy a new name and history. I got out of Darlingfort. Slowly—or perhaps all at once, I don’t remember anymore— Mirror Boy left me. I got my reflection back. I became a whole person again.
The salon wasn’t open, and it wouldn’t be open until eleven. On the edge of posh Helbride, it was party to a stream of older women, powdered and primped, who delicately sashayed in from rooflevel with all the confidence I wished I was born with. They came to get their hair done and their faces done and their nails done while they filled the air with stories of their expensive vacations and expensive heliships and expensive children. They had names and, arguably, personalities, and I recognized most of the regulars by sight, but I could not tell them apart. As a lowly beauty technician, I hadn’t been given the salon keys, but the toilets in the building weren’t locked. They were fancy and empty, appointed in gilt and upholstery and soft underlighting.
Mirror Boy was waiting for me there, pacing between columns of dark marble in the looking-glass toilet, the one that had a copy of him and didn’t have a copy of me. “I want my reflection back,” I told him.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see him. Honestly, I’d missed him, and I hadn’t realized how much until now. His familiar shape and hunch sent ambient warmth through odd corners of my chest. At one point in my life, his existence—just for me, and me alone—had brought great comfort. But the truth was, I no longer needed him. And I didn’t want to go back to being that child who did.
Mirror Boy glanced sideways at me and continued pacing. “It’s not important.”
“Excuse me,” I said. “I think it’s fucking important.”
“No,” he said. “You’re in danger.”
He looked a little different from what I remembered. He was skittish, fingers twisting over knuckles, shoulders tight and drawn. Like a prey animal. It gave me pause, because I’d never seen him this tense before. And he was so young. O Formless Deep, he was so young. “What kind of danger?”
“There’s a man, a hunter. He’s killed all of my refuges. You’re the last one.”
“I don’t understand.”
He stopped pacing and stared, eyes intense and frightened. “Those murders in Darlingfort. He killed them all. They died the same way, slit by the same knife.”
He was right about that, at least according to the news. The weapon link was how the police knew they had a serial killer on their hands. But they couldn’t figure out his MO, his motivations. All seven victims were of different ages, different genders, and different backgrounds. They didn’t know one another. Nothing linked them except that they all lived in Darlingfort, in coffin-rooms smaller than a whale’s heart. So they said the killer was a sadist, picking off random targets in the neighborhood because they were poor and nobody cared.
“You’re the last of my refuges,” Mirror Boy repeated. “When the hunter kills you, I’ll be dead too.”
“What does that mean? Are you tied to me? Are you like some kind of cancer?” It was the easiest comparison in reach, plucking down the name of Mother’s disease.
“Yes. A cancer. That’s a good way of putting it.” Mirror Boy rubbed his bony hands together. “I’m a cancer. You were . . . my first. Site of metastasis, I mean.”
A shiver passed through me at the way he said it. “I’m trying to understand. Who is this man? Why is he coming after you?”
“I’m unnatural,” Mirror Boy said. “I’m dangerous.”
“You weren’t dangerous to me,” I said cautiously. Did this unnamed killer know something I didn’t? Mirror Boy did nothing to me except take my reflection, which I cared nothing for at that point in time. And then he gave it back. “It’s because you’re a spirit, isn’t it?”
Some people have problems with spirits; they can’t accept they’re part of the world we live in now. It’s mostly a particular sort of people, because when you’re poor and desperate, sometimes spirits are the only ones who can help you. Or will help you, for that matter.
I’ve never been afraid of spirits. My mother, when she was alive, used to put me on her knee and tell me that my father was one. A boy with lips like coral and skin like ice, who smelled of ocean and evanesced from her bed in the light of the next morning, never to be seen again. I never found out if she’d just made it up: she didn’t like it when I asked around the circus. After she died I took her story and folded it into the fiber of my being, like all the half-truths I had assimilated over the years. I’m good at taking stories at face value.
“Did you choose me because my father was a spirit?” I asked Mirror Boy.
“It doesn’t matter now,” he said. “The man who hunts me has found you. You have to run. He’ll kill you.”
I thought of Alfous’s hot breath on my neck. “Run, how?” And where could I run to? Back to Darlingfort, where everyone else had died? I didn’t want to run. I wanted to fight. “There’s got to be something I can do.”
Mirror Boy pushed the flat of his palms against the barrier of the glass. “You have to run. Run and hide, the way you did when you left the circus. Become someone else so he can’t find you again. He won’t stop, and you can’t stop him, and you can’t get rid of me.”
“I got rid of you once,” I said, bristling at this litany of negatives.
He looked sad. “But you didn’t.”
I wasn’t planning to leave this life that I’d built purely on some intangible warning from a boy who was half a dream. I liked what I had now: the mindless, fuss-free job; a roommate who was reasonably clean and had no drunk boyfriends to bring over; the little pockets of weird I’d found in the neighborhood, places where I didn’t feel quite out of place. For the first time in my life I could see myself continuing down this path towards the future, gray in my hair, a box flat to call a home, a collection of books, half a dozen cats. A tidy and quiet picture that brought me little jolts of pleasure when I thought of it.
At nine-thirty I went up to the salon, passing a man in a gray leather jacket smoking in one of the turrets, tossing something pear-shaped up and down in one hand. I frowned, because it was a no-smoking building and whatever he had rolled smelled vile, but I said nothing, because I avoid talking to strange men when I can. His face, hidden in shadow, was turned away from me.
Our manager, Jinnie, was already in, sprawled in the receptionist’s chair with a beat-up book. Our shifts started at ten, but she always arrived ahead of time to unlock the doors. She looked surprised to see me. “Well, someone’s early.”
I put on my most harried face. “Jinnie, I’m sorry but I’ve got to beg off for today. I know it’s late notice, but something’s come up that I’ve really got to take care of.”
Jinnie’s expression slid from suspicion to displeasure at a documentable speed. “You know I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t serious,” I said.
She flipped through the bookings chart. “I suppose Sheela can cover for you,” she said, with enough weight on each word to let me know this was a favor she intended to call in later.
“Thanks, Jinnie. I owe you. Sorry again.”
I went down to the waterlevel to see if I could flag a gondola at this hour. There happened to be one moored right in front of the building, with a boatman who looked about fourteen. “How much to Hogskar?” I asked. He returned a number that was extortionate, but I wanted some time to think, so I paid it and climbed in.
The water smelled clean. Our gondola slid between the long shadows of buildings, snake-smooth and steady. Here I could see almost all the way to groundlevel: the old shop fronts and their big glass windows rippling in the boat-wake; caressing fingers of kelp; the small dark shoals of fish. The water’s surface was too disturbed to show me Mirror Boy, but it was calming nonetheless.
As I straightened up I happened to catch a glimpse over my shoulder, and my heart dropped, a sudden lurch. I thought I’d seen the man in the gray jacket behind us in a second boat.
I didn’t dare turn around. “Are we being followed?” I asked the boatman.
He looked puzzled. “No, ma’am.”
Maybe I had just imagined it. Too nervous to check again, I settled for watching the white faces of buildings glide past. Windows polished as silver posted distortions of the gondola over their glass-warp. There I was, hands clasped over my lap, with Mirror Boy by my side.
I startled and turned on instinct. Of course Mirror Boy wasn’t there. Of course I was alone on the ramshackle passenger bench of the gondola. I pulled my coat tighter around myself. We were too far away to talk, in any case.
I remembered now. This was how I lost him. First I started seeing both our images together: intermittently, then all the time. Later it started being just me sometimes, with a yawning emptiness where he was supposed to be. There then came a point where he stopped appearing for good, but by that time I was aggressively hunting for a lease and a fifty-six-hour workweek, and didn’t have the space to find out where he went.
I thought of the late afternoons spent laid out on my bed—an old gym mat taped to the floor—with him curled naked by my side, a weightless, ephemeral comma. There, but not there. I’d touch myself while he hovered over me in the reflection, imagining it was his fingers I felt sliding over my flesh. Later I filched a dildo from an acrobat’s room and watched him in the gloss of my stolen window as he matched the thrust of his hips with my movements. With my head turned to one side, I could imagine that the translucent figures I saw, rapturous in their copulation, reflected the reality I was in.
The gondola slowed at a cross-junction and stopped for the lights. I leaned over the boat’s edge as the water calmed and Mirror Boy came into focus. “I wanted you to be real,” I told him.
I brushed my fingers against his cheek, and his face wavered and broke apart in the ripples. When I sat back I realized the boatman was staring at me. “You sure you alright?”
“Yeah,” I said, not looking him in the eye. I stared at the chipped corner of a building instead, spotty with water damage. My cheeks burned with a mixture of embarrassment and anxiety.
Hogskar was home to one of the pockets of weird I’d curated. I directed the boatman to a flat-roofed apartment block, where a couple of floors above the water lived a witch who ran a manabonanza out of her home. As the gondola bumped against the barnacle crust along the walls, I thanked him and climbed the stairs through something that used to be a window and was now a front door.
This building, like mine, used to have a functional elevator nestled in the winding central stairwell, and it lay drowned at ground level. As I peered into its bronze cage and its flooded depths, a warning prickle ghosted over the back of my neck.
“Be careful,” Mirror Boy said.
I ran up a flight of steps on instinct. Crouched in the cover between windows, I leaned until I could just see outside.
The man in the gray jacket sat in a slim boat with an outboard motor, parked against the border of masonry across the canal. I watched as he fished something out of his pocket, lit it, and put it in his mouth. From this distance he looked startlingly like Mirror Boy, all grown up, with a ragged beard and hair that had last seen scissors years ago.
Fuck. I went back to the rusted bars of the elevator cage. The dark surface of the water was now a floor away. “Who is he?” I demanded of the distant, floating spirit.
Mirror Boy just looked sadly at me.
Now all fluttery with adrenaline, I loped upstairs and pressed the buzzer under bunting that read, in faded red, CHRISSAS MANABONANZA. Bundles of shells and fishbone and cartilage festooned the doorway with great cheer, and the protective beak of a colossal squid hung over the premises. A pair of heartbeats passed before Chrissa’s voice crackled over the intercom. “We’re closed, come back at three!”
“Circus Girl! Hey! What are you doing? Don’t you have work? Just a mo.”
I imagined Chrissa tumbling off whatever surface she had perched on and clattering through the layers of her house and shop. The door flew open to her wide-eyed smile and stream of chatter. “You’re just in time. I’m working on something new, it’s so great, you’re going to love it.” She clicked off the multiple locks across the folding aluminum gate. “It’s like, a clockwork heart, and I think I’ve almost got the formulation right this time.”
“Chrissa,” I said. “Chrissa, I need your help.”
“Oh. That sounds serious. Come on in.”
The moment I crossed the threshold an alarm sounded: a single, shrill, vibrating note. I froze. That sound meant fire, it meant death, it meant run, for all is lost.
“Shit,” Chrissa said. “What the hell?” She grabbed me by the arm and stiffly pushed me into an alcove by the door, cluttered with shoeboxes and the mummified carcasses of old umbrellas. “Did you get infected?”
The alarm continued its devouring scream. Chrissa tiptoed and thumbed off its controls, fixed under the fuse box. “Sorry. It’s a recycled school bell—it’s pretty fucking loud.” She turned back to me. “What’s going on? Did you get haunted?”
I leaned against the cold ledge of the alcove’s hatch, lined with red brick. “I don’t know. It’s worse than that, I think.”
Chrissa clicked her tongue. “Okay. Hang tight. Let me get my stuff.”
I stood in the dark of the alcove, inhaling layers of dust into a chest already tight with emotion. Chrissa hummed as she rifled through overflowing cabinets, her straw-bright hair drawn into a high, messy bun. She came back with a lacquered box and an armful of clear plastic drinking glasses. “Here,” she said, leaning across the hatch, “give me some fluid. Spit, blood, whatever.” She handed me a dusty shot glass.
I spit several times while she set up, decanting squid-ink tinctures into the glasses, a rainbow of eldritch chemistry. “Thank you,” she said, taking the shot glass from me. She dipped a clutch of cocktail sticks into the spit, then dropped one into each glass.
“Hmm,” she said, as the tinctures turned color, effervesced, or remained inert. “Okay. It looks like you’ve got a wraith. That’s . . . not great. When did you pick it up?”
So that’s how I learned Mirror Boy had a classification, a precedence, an observed set of characteristics. “Ten years ago. I was sixteen. But he left. He’s just only come back now.”
“Ten years? No, that means the wraith didn’t leave, it just went dormant. I’ve heard that it happens. That’s probably why the wards didn’t pick it up before.” She pushed off the alcove hatch. “Anyway, you’re not at end stage yet, and wraiths aren’t super-infectious. I might be able to contain it. We’ll see. The important part is, you’re still you. Come on.”
“Chrissa,” I said, “the wraith’s not the problem.”
She paused. “Oh?”
“There’s a murderer after me. I think he’s downstairs, waiting across the canal.”
“He’s killed all of Mirror Boy’s— my wraith’s other refuges. I don’t know what that means, but there’s been a string of murders in Darlingfort—”
“Hang on a minute. Describe this guy. You said he’s downstairs?”
“I think it’s him. He’s about my height, skinny, stringy brown hair down to here. This gross, patchy beard . . .”
Chrissa’s eyes were slits. “Gray leather jacket?”
“That’s him. You know him?”
“Shit.” She blew air between her lips and rolled her eyes. “Yeah, he came to get his scry adjusted. Fucksquid, I didn’t know he was after you.”
“He’s killed seven people,” I exclaimed. “Why did you help him?”
“Honey. Do you know what wraiths do? You— wait.” She blew out a breath as a modicum of understanding hit. “You don’t want to get rid of this wraith, do you?”
I couldn’t say yes. I couldn’t say no. I said, instead: “I want to know what’s going on. And I want this creep to stop following me.”
Chrissa narrowed her eyes again. “How would you describe your relationship with this wraith?”
This time, I really hesitated. “Intimate.” As Chrissa’s eyebrows shot upwards I said, “I was sixteen! He was a boy, I was a girl, I—”
“Did you love him?”
“No! I don’t know. Look, it’s been ten years. I just don’t want to die like the others. Please, there’s got to be something we can do.”
“Honey . . .” She rubbed my arm apologetically. “Come on. Let’s see what we’ve got on our hands.”
With a bucket of squid ink, wet and pungent, Chrissa inscribed a charm circle on the floor, a standing mirror at its heart. As she worked, she explained: “Wraiths are a bit weird. They’re in between, not fully spirits, but more than raw energy. They’re sort of, leftover life-force that goes hunting for hosts. Parasites, basically.” She straightened up and went to put the ink bucket away. “The problem with wraiths is that A, they take over their hosts and do crazy shit, and B, they can also jump hosts. So they spread. There are hunters who specialize in taking them out before they become a real problem. The more hosts, the harder to kill.”
“You said they’re not infectious.”
“I said they’re not super-infectious. There are conditions for becoming a host.” She beckoned at me to step into the circle. “Come on. I want to see this mirror boy of yours.”
I looked at the lines and glyphs spread across the floor. “Is it going to hurt him? I don’t want to hurt him.”
“Oh, honey.” Chrissa shook her head. “It won’t hurt him. It’s for me to see him and talk to him. If he wants to talk.”
I gingerly tiptoed into the circle, careful not to disturb the still-wet lines. Mirror Boy stood in front of me, fully clad in a shabby red t-shirt and jeans. I’d never seen him like this, and it sent a trill of sadness and betrayal through me.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He was just a child, scuffing the toe of one beat-up shoe against the heel of the other.
“Why didn’t you tell me any of this?”
“I’m sorry,” he repeated.
Chrissa knelt and chanted softly over the charm circle, invoking Kraken, invoking Leviathan. “Neither spine nor ribcage, neither collarbones nor hips, the eyes that see in the watery dark, the mouths that open in the deep.” Her handiwork slid from glistening black to iridescent silver, and the lines sang as they came to life, each circular glyph ringing a different note. The chorus of bell tones raised my flesh in tingling waves.
“Alright,” Chrissa said, matter-of-factly. She stood and struck gray dust from her hands as the charm circle hummed. “Let’s see what we got.”
She stepped in, looked into the mirror, and melted. “Oh, honey. Look at him. He’s just a baby.”
“Yeah,” I said, mouth dry. He was a baby. I’d been a baby back then, too. Neither of us knew what we were doing, flailing through this world.
Chrissa and her marshmallow heart were already gone. I should have known this would happen. Her voice was bright and airy like she was talking to a small, soft animal. “Hello. What’s your name?”
“I don’t have one.” He looked to me for reassurance. “She calls me Mirror Boy.”
“I want to know about you. Tell me about yourself.”
Mirror Boy stared blankly. Undaunted, Chrissa asked in the singsong manner she reserved for young children, “How would you describe yourself?”
“I am what I am,” he said. “I live through others. I’ve had eight different hosts. Lynette was my first, a long time ago. And then she asked me to leave, so I found others. I don’t think she remembers this.”
“I remember,” I said, stung by his accusation. “And I never asked you to leave.”
Chrissa quietly patted my hand, as if to say, not now. “Tell me about your other hosts. How come you have so many?”
“I found pathways to other people. But they didn’t always want me around. So I left them too.”
“Seven other hosts over ten years?”
He nodded. “The shortest time I spent with one was three days. But—” he hitched his shoulders up and drew in a shaky breath like he needed air— “the hunter killed her too. Why? She didn’t know who I was. She thought I was a bad dream.”
“Hunters have to be thorough,” Chrissa said. I choked audibly at that, and she explained, “It’s like an illness. You have to get rid of everything that’s infected.”
“Like an extermination,” I said tonelessly. I wanted to vomit.
Chrissa’s lips pursed. She looked more upset than I ever remembered, and that helped with nothing. She turned back to Mirror Boy as I blinked back burning in my eyes. “How about the host you were with the longest.”
“My last host,” he said. I noticed how much more tired he looked. “Her name was Nur Elisha. She lived alone in Darlingfort. I was with her for seven years. She thought I was her long-lost grandson.”
I swallowed. Words could not describe the ugly feelings welling up in me now. “Did the hunter kill her too?”
“He killed her first. And found the others, one by one. Every one I fled to, he killed.”
Nur Elisha, Nur Elisha. I replayed the name in my head, trying to tease out if and when I saw her in the news. But an elderly woman dying alone in the sewer slums wasn’t important. And wouldn’t be until the third or fourth person killed the same way.
“I’m going to ask you a question. Please answer it honestly.” Chrissa’s manner towards Mirror Boy was still gentle as a shepherd’s, but I’d never seen her this somber, and that frightened me more than anything else. I was standing chest-high in a sea of uncertainty. It was a sick old feeling. It was a familiar old feeling. “Why didn’t you take any of your hosts over?”
“Because I didn’t want to,” he said. “I know I’m supposed to. I can feel that call. But I—” He stopped, struggling for words. He had never been the most talkative, my Mirror Boy. “I just wanted to watch. What would I do with their lives?”
“What, indeed,” Chrissa muttered to herself. To Mirror Boy she asked: “Do you know who your hunter is?”
“Hmm.” Chrissa had gone uncharacteristically quiet. She told me, “You stay right here,” and vanished into the upper loft.
With Chrissa gone, Mirror Boy leaned as far as the glass would allow him and hissed: “She can’t help us. Nobody can break what links us. Either you run, or—” He exhaled, and the glass went misty on the inside.
“Or she finds a way to kill me without touching you.”
“It’s the only way—”
“No.” I slapped my hand against the glass and he flinched back from it. “Stop saying these things. I don’t want you dead. And I never asked you to leave. Why would you say that?”
He moved away from the glass. “You didn’t have to say it. I could tell. You were trying to build a life that had no space for me in it. You wanted a normal life. So I let you be normal.”
“That’s not true,” I insisted. I had been maybe a bit relieved to get my reflection back—to know that it would be my face I saw when I looked in a mirror—but I wasn’t glad. It was just—it was more convenient. Because then I didn’t have to worry about explaining him to other people. Or the fact that I couldn’t see to put on lip gloss. It was just slightly easier.
But I’d rather have had him. I believed that.
“There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be normal,” Mirror Boy said.
Chrissa came back downstairs, waving a small velvet box that probably safekept someone’s wedding ring in its previous life. “Luckily for us,” she said, “our hunter-murderer is a bit of a dumbass. I’m guessing an amateur. I asked him for a bunch of things as payment for fixing his scry, including a lock of hair.” She tapped the ring box. “Pro tip: Never give a witch anything that used to be part of you. No matter what the reason.”
“What are you going to do?” I asked. I imagined the curses she could lay upon him on my behalf. She could solve all our problems instantly.
But of course Chrissa wasn’t that kind of witch. “I’m going to find out who he is.”
Her desk yielded a sliver of workspace and she got busy, tuning us out of her consciousness. I folded myself to the floor and leaned my head against the cool glass. I wasn’t sure what time it was anymore. I thought: I need to tell Shane I’m not coming back tonight. It’s my turn to cook dinner.
I closed my eyes. Mirror Boy began to talk. “At the start, I was going to take you over,” he said. “It’s true that is the nature of wraiths. But you, you wanted to live so badly. You burned with so much desire that it frightened me. I didn’t think I could put out that flame. So I stayed and I watched you. And over time I realized I didn’t have to do what my nature demanded of me. So I didn’t.”
“You’re not like the other wraiths,” I whispered.
“I suppose I’m not.”
“What do we really know about wraiths, anyway?” Chrissa said. She was grinding some kind of rock into fine powder in a tiny handheld mortar. “Jack shit. All our current spiritual knowledge is like, a grand total of twenty years old. We make it up as we go along. I bet that in ten years, Mirror Boy, you’re going to be the case study people cite when talking about wraiths.”
I thought about life ten years in the future and a blanket of exhaustion fell over me. I still had the gauntlet of the next ten days to go through. The next ten hours.
Mirror Boy leaned against me, shoulder to shoulder, the glass a thin and unbreakable barrier between our worlds. “Are you happy?” he whispered. “Is this the life that you wanted?”
“Heavy questions, kid,” Chrissa warned from her perch.
I didn’t know how to answer him. “It’s not a bad life,” I said. “It’s a bit dull. But it’s my life.”
“It sounds nice,” he said, and he sounded like he meant it more than I did.
I looked up at Chrissa, framed by the stacks of her grimoires, a figure of pure concentration, and was struck by envy, bone-deep. Chrissa looked like someone who was exactly where she was meant to be. Here was a person who hadn’t just fallen into the grooves of her life like a yellow coat of autumn leaves, but was growing bright and verdant from deep soil that suited her. And she was just sitting there, filled with innocent purpose, with no idea how lucky she was. I wished I had the same kind of untrammeled joy in my life as Chrissa did. I felt almost guilty I didn’t.
“I’m a pretender,” I said, knowing Mirror Boy was listening. “When I stop to think about my life I get the sense that I’m just borrowing someone else’s. So I don’t.” I shrugged. It was hard to put these sentiments into words. “Like I have all this stuff in my past I can’t talk about. I don’t know.” The events of the past few hours were finally catching up, like a tidal wave about to smother me. “I’m sorry I snapped when you came back. Because it’s like . . . I was being reminded that I’m only a pretender. Pretending to have this life that isn’t mine.”
“Your life is your life,” Chrissa said sharply, and when I looked up she was glaring at me over the rims of the bifocals she wore to do near-vision work. “Don’t say shit like that. People deserve to have nice things.”
“A borrowed life is better than none,” said Mirror Boy.
I pressed my fingertips to his against the cool glass and felt a smile pushing through my gloom. “I’m not going to argue with you.”
Exhaustion overtook me then, and I must have fallen asleep at some point, because I woke to Chrissa gripping me by the shoulders, her face inches from mine. “Did you ever drown?”
I blinked away half-ghosts and dream-fragments. “Yes, once.” I didn’t want to tell her about Alfous, about his cruel fingers or the little red tip of his tongue, or the way the blood bloomed across his neck when I cut it.
“Was this when you met the kid?”
“How did you know?”
“Come have a look.”
She sauntered to her desk, where a battle-scarred laptop sat whirring. I didn’t want to leave the safety of the charm circle, so I stayed put. Chrissa pointed to the screen. “I worked out your hunter’s name, and I scrubbed the web for it. Look. There we are. There’s your mirror boy.”
The screen was too far for me to read. I tried to swallow my disbelief. “Mirror Boy’s the hunter?”
“Kraken’s sake, no. Mirror boy drowned ten years ago. Here it is, in the news. The hunter’s his twin. There’s your motivation sorted out. He’s going after his brother’s wraith. I told you: an amateur.”
“I don’t have an older brother,” Mirror Boy said. He sounded confused. “I don’t remember him.”
“Of course you don’t. You’re not a spirit. Just loose energy from when someone died before their time, given shape and direction. How do you find your hosts, kid?”
Mirror Boy licked his lips. “In the water, on the verge of passing.”
“There, see? You’re following the path of that boy’s death.”
“But I’m not him,” Mirror Boy said. “I don’t know him. I’m not—”
“Doesn’t matter.” Chrissa clicked the laptop shut. “Look, obviously this guy is serious. Amateur hunters like him do it because they’re fanatics. You can’t reason with them. I know this too well.” She sighed and tangled her hands in her hair. “And there’s no known way to separate a wraith from its host. Once you infect a person, it’s permanent. No take-backsies.” She started pacing in a tiny circle, which she only did when she was frustrated. “That’s why hunters kill hosts. It’s cruel, but it’s better than letting the wraith spread, because most wraiths are legit nightmares. I don’t say that lightly. I’ve had to clean up before. When wraiths possess people, they turn into psychopaths. Like flesh-dungeon, cannibal-horror psychopaths.”
“But he’s not like that,” I said. “You know he’s not like that. He’s not.”
“I know. He . . . loves you. I think that’s the difference.” She looked between the two of us, helpless. “Honey, I’m sorry. This is out of my depth. I’m out of ideas. I don’t know what to do.”
“That’s not good enough. We have to do something.” I looked at Mirror Boy, trapped in his bubble of a world. I’d spent the last ten years scraping this life I had together, but he couldn’t leave the glass-bound existence he was chained to. So maybe my life wasn’t perfect, maybe it was dull and not a hundred percent what I would have hoped for. But it was mine. And it was more than he had. It wasn’t fair. He deserved better. We deserved better.
“We have to do something,” I repeated.
Leviathan forgive me. I stand here in Your eternal sight, a sinner beyond redemption, my hands stained as Kraken’s ink and my heart cold and dead as Kraken’s eyes. Ten years ago the greater part of my soul drowned in the water with my brother. It was my fault that those men mistook him for me, and a stain upon my being that I was not there to stop it from happening. But it will be over soon. Tonight, or tomorrow, or sometime this week, I will kill the last of his hosts, and then it will be done. This job will be done, and I can fade away.
The girl has corralled herself in the building where the witch lives. I don’t know if they’re friends, but the scry lies heavy and dormant in my hand. Something protects her and hides her from my sight. The knife weighs my belt down, waiting and patient. It has tasted the blood of seven, and it wants more. I detest it. I detest its heft, its hunger. I regret the day I had it forged. But it’s too late. If I stop now, at this one last step I need to end this wraith, then all the death that came before will be for nothing.
In the old days this would be easier. You’d dig up the grave, salt the bones, then burn them. But the sea is my brother’s grave, and it has thickened his bones with salt, and no fire shall ever touch them.
It was Leviathan who guided me. It was They who sent Bastian to me. Sweet Bastian, with his soft cheeks and honeyed lips. He spoke of the year his reflection showed someone else, dark haired and dark eyed, skin warm as almond husks. He said: “At first, I thought you were him. You look exactly alike.” I told him about my dead twin, the drowned boy, and between our tellings the events that had followed my brother’s death became clear. By then I had spent years in penance, knees pressed to the cold temple floors, hot blood dripping into sacrificial chalices, praying for my sins to be cleansed by the stringent purity of saltwater. For the mercy of Leviathan to pass through me and leave me bleached and bare. That night, I knew that I was beyond the redemption of even the Great Finned One, but They had blessed me still with a chance to atone for the life I had led.
From there everything unraveled: the nights combing through the mausoleums of old libraries, the days spent pulling secrets out of witches and priests. And then the knowledge, and then the knife, and then the first of the blood. The old woman who lived alone in a coffin box, among stacks of decaying photographs and the flat faces of mirrors.
Until then, I didn’t think I could do it. Until the moment the knife punctured her chest I believed I would fail on the path Leviathan had set me upon. But the old woman died and I was baptized in her blood, reborn as Leviathan’s blade. Great Leviathan, I am Your will and Your flesh in the realm of mortals, doing Your bidding as I may. I stain myself in Your name. I condemn myself so that I may bring peace to Your domain.
Yesterday it was Bastian’s turn. The smell of his blood lingers on my collar where his hands touched it, his questing fingers tightening, then losing their grip. I dread the thought of washing my shirt. It’s all I have left of him.
The scry comes to life, the coral glowing with bioluminescence. The urchin-spike needle spins. The girl has emerged from her den of safety.
Soon it will be over.
By the time I park the boat and enter the building, her footsteps are echoing on the steps several floors above me. I take my shoes off. Barefoot and silent, I slip upwards, the knife ready in my hand.
The girl comes to a stop at midlevel, leaning by the gangway to the next building. She’s slender and fashionable, an ocean of curls resting on her shoulders. In another time, I might have offered her something else: a drink, a taste of salt. Her shaking hands fumble with a lighter and cigarette. In the end, it’s our vices that will lead to our downfall. I creep up from behind.
Soon it will be over.
Something creaks. She turns, catches sight of me, and recoils in fear. I spring forward, but she is already fleeing down the gangway into the waiting night.
I give chase. The girl shines like a deer in the woods, a memory from the time I was too small to know speech. She vanishes into the shelter of the next building, which exists as a dismal wreck, boarded-up and empty even of squatters. The midlevel floor, formerly a studio or warehouse, challenges me with a maze of metal cabinets, heaving with rotting boxes and bloated white tins.
The girl slips between the cabinets, her breathing harsh. I trip over a metal rod jutting between two shelves and land palm-first in the dust. As I scramble to get up I hear a deep crash, then another. A chorus of deadly groans—metallic, ringing. The girl. She’s pushed a shelf over and now they’re all coming down, an army of avenging dominoes.
The floor doesn’t hold. Eaten through with mold and termites, it ruptures under the weight of the falling shelves. Wood and metal plunge towards the waiting water, meeting their doom with dull sounds. I barely escape the devouring chasm in time. I watch a whole cabinet tip to its death, its insides spilling like butchered intestines.
A skittering sound to my left. It’s the girl, leaping over rubble and ruin. I realize I’ve dropped the knife and it’s nowhere to be found.
The girl has it. She’s run to the far end of the room, and the knife glints in a shard of moonlight as she holds it up. I speak to the wraith of my brother who resides in her: “Are you going to do it for me, Vincent?” I ask. “Will you end your own life? End this torment?”
“I’m not him,” she says, in a voice high and clear as a songbird’s. “I’m not your dead brother. No one is.” She cuts into her palm; blood runs over her wrist and down her elbow. “Look. I bleed red. I’m human.”
I shake my head. None of the other hosts bled wraith-black either. Sometimes the literature is wrong. But now the girl has put obstacles between us. She is clever; I have to be careful.
“Look,” she says. “You seem like a nice man. It doesn’t have to be like this. We could be friends. I want to be your friend. Don’t you want to know your brother?”
Her eyes are luminous, the way I remember deer eyes reflected the light. The shape of her legs shows under her shift, and I imagine the warmth between them and the soft places I can sink into. I imagine taking her down by the neck and having her right here, on the dying floorboards of a dying building. I imagine killing her as she comes, my brother’s wraith spilling like black vomit from her lips.
A shiver passes through me, and I know at once that this is Kraken’s corruption. Kraken with Its tentacles that turn flesh to temptation and minds to ruin. Kraken who lives to frustrate the will of Leviathan. No. I cannot be fooled. I will not be thwarted.
I seize a metal rod from the ground, its end a series of ragged points. The knife is only a tool; anything will work as well. “Don’t try to trick me, you witch.”
The girl runs.
By Leviathan’s grace I cross the room without falling through. The girl has vanished up the concrete stairwell with roof access, but that’s a mistake. This building is too short to connect to rooflevel, so she’ll be trapped. I burst through the door to find her standing at the roof edge, staring across the blank space of the canal, elbows tight to her waist.
“There’s nowhere to run,” I say, as the door claps shut behind me. “You might as well give up. It’ll be easier on both of us.”
“I don’t want to die,” she says.
“I know. I’m sorry.” And I mean it. She is lovely, and I am truly sorry that she has to die. “But to live, a wraith needs a body to inhabit.”
She looks over her shoulder at me. “I know,” she says sadly.
Then she spins on her heel, her arm thrown out. Something strikes me hard and I go crashing against the door. The knife’s handle protrudes from my chest. As I watch fluid trickle down my jacket my knees lose coherence, as though their tendons have been cut. I see. The girl is clever, and I have allowed her to trick me. This is the end. My metal rod clatters to the ground.
The girl canters over and pulls the knife from my heart, and the blood it held back spills over my shirt. “Once upon a time, I used to be a circus girl,” she says. “Once upon a time, I used to throw knives and juggle and spin fire.”
The girl’s eyes glitter in the moonlight as though they were a distant conflagration. A forest burning. “He’s taken you,” I say. The taste of hot copper fills my mouth.
“No,” she says. “He’s never taken me. He doesn’t follow his nature. He chose not to. That’s why I decided to save him.” She squats over me. “To live, a wraith needs a body to inhabit. You understand, don’t you?”
I do, and yet I do not. The world is fading around me. In this half-twilight my brother stands behind the circus girl. It’s been so long since I’ve seen him, I’ve forgotten what he looks like. He’s so beautiful. We used to be so beautiful. I had forgotten.
I flick my gaze back to the circus girl, trying to understand before my time on this watery earth runs out. “You’ll . . . take care of him?”
“No, hunter,” she says. “He’ll take care of you.” She runs her fingers softly through my hair. “A borrowed life is better than none.”
A borrowed life is better than none. Is that something I used to say? Or my brother? Maybe it was our mother, long dead and gone. My memories swim into one another and I lose them to the dark. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter anymore.
Forgive me, Leviathan. I know not if I have failed You, only that I have tried my best. I am light as a child floating on the surface of a clear blue sea. O Great Finned One, take me into Your infinite depths, away from this salt-bitten world. I see brother’s face one last time, framed over the circus girl’s shoulder. He is smiling.
I smell the sea on the air. It’s a smell I don’t remember, because I remember nothing. But a month from now, or maybe a year later, I will look back on this day and I will.
I feel the sun upon the skin of the man who used to be my brother. It’s warm. It’s pleasant. It could burn me, if it wasn’t winter. It is my skin now, and I belong to it, as it belongs to me.
I hear the sounds of life around me. So many notes I can hardly believe it, after so long spent hearing only one voice at a time. There’s the arguments of sea birds, the wash of water against walls, the song of boat motors, and the soft humming of someone experiencing happiness.
I see Circus Girl perched on the roof edge, her ankles freely dangling, her hair soft and loose. The tune she hums is one her mother used to sing her to sleep with. I realize I am seeing for the first time the shape of her back, the geography of her spine.
I taste grit in my mouth, clay and ashes and bone. Chrissa tells me it will take a few days for it to go away. A few days for my heart to settle into its new home.
I want to tell Circus Girl how grateful I am. For hosting me. For teaching me about life. For saving me when I needed it. I want to tell her how terrified I am, now that I have been given all this, and I can do anything I want with it. I want to tell her about this happiness I feel, how new and delightful it is to me.
Instead I say, “I think I’m hungry. Let’s go downstairs and eat.”
Text copyright © 2019 by Neon Yang
Art copyright © 2019 by Ashley Mackenzie