Circus Girl, The Hunter, and Mirror Boy

By Neon Yang

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.

Until now.

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 know.”

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!”

“It’s Lynette.”

“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.”

“A murderer?”

“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.”

Read more https://www.tor.com/2019/01/30/circus-girl-the-hunter-and-mirror-boy/

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