Grasping the cool iron bars of the birdcage, Todd watched the Shadow. It sat on its knees as it rummaged through a stack of used board games and puzzles. From above, he could hear the sound of footsteps and high-pitched voices arguing with each other. Todd wiped his runny nose on his sleeve while the Shadow grabbed the boxes, one after the other, and shook them to hear the pieces rattle. Then, it tossed them aside with obvious frustration.
Startled by the strange surroundings, Todd moved his whole body to look around. Model airplanes hung from the wooden beams. Dusty cobwebs filled each upper corner and on the wall beside Todd, pinned with a rusty nail, was a sepia-toned portrait of two boys. They were standing on the ice beside a large black hole. Quietly, Todd leaned forward to get a closer look. The photograph was damaged, nearly torn in half as though it had been folded too many times.
“That’s me,” said the Shadow, holding a green box with faded images of snakes and ladders, under its arm.
Todd flinched slightly, but the Shadow merely pointed to the short, plump boy with the pinched smile in the photograph. The Shadow shuffled its feet and muttered, “And that’s my brother, Jester.”
The taller boy had the same frozen expression. He held a fishing cane in one hand and had his other hand on his little brother’s shoulder. Todd’s eyes widened as he recognized the tall boy by his fiery red hair; it was Jester Thingrim, the old man who was after Anya.
“What do you want?” asked Todd in a small voice.
The Shadow sat cross-legged in front of the birdcage and set the board game on its lap. It brushed away ages of dust and dirt from the box with its long thin fingers and said, “A friend.”
“Friends don’t…“ Todd started to say, then thought better of it and closed his mouth.
Under Todd’s steady stare, the Shadow prepared the game: unfolding the board and setting it on the floor between them. Then he took two wooden tokens and set them on the board.
“Do you still want to play?”
Cautiously, Todd reached out as far as he could through the iron bars and picked up the dice. “What happened to you?” he asked, letting the dice roll around in his hand.
“I fell in the water,” said the Shadow. “And…”
“Are you a ghost?”
“I don’t think so,” said the Shadow. “Are you?”
“No!” Todd blurted out in surprise. A brief silence followed his words, and then the young boy furrowed his brows. “When can I see my sister?”
“What if I want to see her now?”
“You can’t,” said the Shadow, shaking its head. “It’ll make Jester mad.” It shuddered a bit and lowered its voice. “You don’t want to make him mad.”
“Let’s play a game,” said Todd, shaking the dice in his cupped hands. He blew into them long and hard. “If I win, you let me out.” He raised his hands high above his head. “And if you win, we can play another game.”
Beneath a yellow pavilion, the children huddled around a large bucket of popcorn while they waited for their turn. Billy dug his hand to the bottom of the bucket to scoop out a couple of un-popped kernels as he observed the mime at the other end of the counter. She wore a black-and-white polka-dot dress with white ruffles around the neck and sleeves with a matching cowboy hat. Swiftly, she ripped children’s tickets with her teeth and gave them a shotgun in return.
Billy threw a kernel up in the air and caught it in his mouth. “Are you okay?” he asked Anya.
“Fine,” she snapped. She felt her blood boiling—not only did Todd run off again, but she spent all of her time worrying about her brother when she could have been looking for Ma. I should have asked Jester Thingrim when I had the chance, she thought to herself. “I just—”
A loud bang caught Billy’s attention. He pumped his fist in the air and shouted: “Woo-hoo!” cheering on a boy his age who finally hit one of the balloons after randomly shooting all over the place. When the children had finished their rounds, the mime collected the shotguns and made her way toward Billy. From the back pocket of his trousers, Billy pulled out his ticket and gave it to the mime as fast as he could. Anya held out one of hers as well.
“Billy,” said Miranda in a wheedling voice. “Can I have one of your tickets?”
Billy ignored her. His eyes were fixed on the mime. She chomped down on their tickets, and then swallowed them in a single gulp. A wide smile stretched across Billy’ face as he wrapped his fingers around the shotgun.
“Please.” Miranda tugged repeatedly at Billy’s sleeve. “I have to go to the Mirror Maze.”
Anger flashed across Billy’s face. He tried to pull his arm back, but the more he pulled the harder Miranda clung to him.
“No!” he said, thrusting her back.
Miranda squealed: “Hey!” and rubbed her right arm. “That hurt.”
Anya shifted uneasily. This was the first time Billy had raised his voice at Miranda. She watched his lips twitch into a grin as he cocked the gun and aimed at the nearest balloon. His finger pulled the trigger and—Bam!—the balloon exploded into little pieces of red rubber. He cocked the gun again and fired, this time hitting two balloons.
Irritated, Miranda’s nostrils flared. “Aren’t you going to say sorry?” she demanded. She was about to tap Billy again when a twinkle of light on the prize shelf caught her attention. Miranda reached out with her chubby finger to grab the tiara. But before she even got close, the mime slammed her fist on the counter. She jabbed a finger at the wooden sign beside her that read: 5 hits – 1 prize. Miranda rolled her eyes.
“If I win,” said Anya. “You can pick a prize.”
Instantly, Miranda’s eyes flashed.
For a moment, Anya fumbled with the shotgun. She had never seen a real gun before in her life, much less tried shooting from one. Imitating Billy, she clumsily positioned it on her shoulder and aimed. Anya winced when she fired. She had not expected the shotgun to have real bullets and felt a sharp pang in her shoulder as though someone had punched her.
“You missed!” said Miranda, disappointed. “Billy, please, can you do it? We only need one more hit.”
“I only have one ticket left,” said Billy as he put the shotgun down on the counter. “And I want to do something else.”
“I’m not very good,” said Anya, handing her shotgun over to Billy. “Here, you do it.”
“Are you sure?”
Anya said: “I’d do anything to get her shut up,” and winked.
“I won’t say a word,” plead Miranda. “Promise!”
Billy tried to hold back a laugh but it snorted out through his nose. He accepted the shotgun and leaned on the counter to get a better aim. There were no more balloons in front of him and those in front of Anya joggled too much in the wind. Miranda took a few steps back to let Billy concentrate until she noticed the red ticket in his back pocket. Unable to resist, she plucked it out.
A voice boomed from behind. “There is no stealing in this carnival.”
The children jumped and turned around to find Jester Thingrim towering over them. With a quick flick of the wrist, he swept the ticket out of her hand. He handed it back to Billy.
“I only got one ticket,” said Miranda, puffing out her chest. “It’s not fair. I want more.”
“More you shall have,” said Jester Thingrim with a grin. He snapped his fingers at the mime with the cowboy hat. Immediately she jumped over the counter and hurried over.
“Please escort little Miss Miranda back to the ticket booth,” he said, “where she can have all the tickets she pleases.”
“As many as I want?” said Miranda in an excited voice. She wrapped her arm around the mime and followed her willingly, her head held up high.
Anya watched Miranda disappear in the crowd of children, her eyes narrowing with suspicion. Then she turned around and faced Jester Thingrim. She was far more frightened of him than Miranda was, but eventually she said: “I want to find my mother.”
A smug grin formed along the edges of his mouth. “Come,” he said. “She’s waiting for you at the Carousel.”
“I already saw it,” said Anya. “She wasn’t there.”
“You didn’t look inside.”