Carniepunk: The Cold Girl
“ The Cold Girl” Rachel Caine
It took me two days to die. On the first night, I met Madame Laida, and on the second night, I met the Cold Girl.
And this is how it happened.
This is me. I’m Kiley. I’m sixteen, and I have good taste in clothes and mostly crap taste in boys; I’m kinda pretty, I guess, but that never mattered really, because I’ve been in love since I was about eight with Jamie Pierson.
Oh, Jamie’s pretty, too, in that boy kind of way: glossy black hair, really blue eyes, perfect skin. When he first smiled at me, I fell head over heels in love. It took me about two years to convince him to even hold hands with me, but by twelve we were kissing, and by fourteen we were officially In Love, with all the doves and bells ringing and sparkles from heaven. Cue the music, bring up the credits, the story’s over and we all live happily ever after.
Or at least, I thought that was the story. I mean, not that my friends didn’t try to tell me. Marina, she was my best friend until I was fifteen, but we had a blowup slap fight about Jamie and how he
was treating me. I thought she just didn’t understand him. I thought she was a liar when she said he was a douchebag. By then, Marina was my last friend; everybody else had already shrugged, moved on, figured me for a lost cause.
Smithfield isn’t exactly a metropolis; it’s stuck in the middle of nowhere, and any kind of diversion is welcome. Still, the arrival of a creaky, ancient carnival was something new. I’d thought Smithfield had long been scratched off all the traveling-show lists, but this one looked to be just barely surviving anyway. Even the flyers for it posted around town looked old, not just in design, but even the paper they were printed on.
Still, some of us didn’t care about quality; when word went around school that day that a carnival was setting up outside of town, the quality of the entertainment was the last thing on our minds. We just wanted a good time: some cotton candy, some rides, some screams, some cheesy fun.
At least, I did. And I texted Jamie instantly from my last class of the day. CRNVL 2NITE?
And Jamie texted back thirty seconds later: Y.
So. It was a date.
I called my mom to tell her that I wouldn’t be home until late because I was going to the movies with Marina. (She never checked; she just assumed that once a friend, always a friend, and I was careful to never use Marina for anything that would bring on awkward parental phone calls.) Mom didn’t worry. You didn’t much in Smithfield. Little town, comfortable, boring, nothing ever going on here, right? Why do you care if your sixteen-year-old goes to the movies with a friend?
But I’m here to tell you . . . maybe you should.
School let out at 3:30, but I had band practice after, so it wasn’t until 5:00 when I was at the curb, and the late fall afternoon
was getting crisply cool by the time Jamie rolled up in his car. It was black, and shiny, but it wasn’t new—he just loved it more than anything else in his life, except (I supposed) me. I put my clarinet in the backseat, on the floorboard, because he’d yelled at me before when I’d put it on the seat (“You’ll scuff up the leather, what’s wrong with you?”) and ducked into the passenger side.
“Hey,” I said, and he bent over for a quick, almost nonexistent kiss.
“Hey,” he said. “Let’s go, the guys are already there.”
I didn’t know it then, but Jamie was already bored stupid with me, his dumb grade-school crush, and I was too in love to notice. He hardly even looked at me; his attention was on the road as he roared out of the parking lot and onto the street before I’d even had a chance to buckle my seat belt. I did it quick, because I knew the local cops would be on the lookout for anything Jamie did wrong; they didn’t like him. I didn’t understand why—he was such a good guy!
Stupid, I know, right?
Smithfield was a six-stoplight town in any direction from the school, which was more or less in the center. At each stoplight, instead of talking to me or even glancing at me, Jamie pulled out his cell phone and would watch . . . something. I couldn’t see what it was because he had some kind of privacy screen filter over the screen, so you had to be looking straight on to see what was displayed. He was smiling, though, and it wasn’t a nice smile. It was tight, hard, and a little disturbing.
I tried, though. “Hey, how was your biology class? Did you pass the test?”
“You could say that,” he said, and the smirk got deeper. “Even though Mr. Harrison doesn’t think so. Dumbass.”
“So . . . you didn’t pass?”
“I got a D. Good enough.”
A grade of D wasn’t passing, and he knew it, but he just shrugged as if it didn’t matter. And he kept on smiling.
Dropping the phone on the seat between us (it was one of those long bench seats, the way old cars sometimes have), he gunned it when the light shifted to green. I had taken my phone out too. We had matching ones—isn’t that sweet?—except mine had a little crystal dangle on it. Suddenly he hit the brakes hard and I yelped, dropped my phone, and grabbed for the dashboard as the seat belt slammed hard against my chest. His phone slid off the seat and fell, too, bouncing on the floorboard.
“Shit!” Jamie spat, and tried to fish around for it beneath the wheel. “Get it, Kiley!”
He’d braked for some old grandma who was going twenty in a thirty that he’d been blasting through at fifty, so now he whipped the wheel hard over and roared past the other car. He didn’t flip her off, but I could see he thought about it.
I unlocked my seat belt and crawled under the dash. Two phones. I grabbed them both and backed out, settled back in the seat, and buckled up.
“Um . . .” I showed Jamie his phone. A giant crack ran across it, like lightning. He cussed—a lot—and slammed his hand into the dashboard; his face got very red, and then, suddenly, he got real quiet. He took the phone and put it in his jacket pocket.
“I’ll sync it up when I get home,” he said. “No problem.”
“Okay.” My voice sounded small. He scared me when he was angry, but this was almost as bad. All of a sudden switching from fury to utter calm? Weird, and wrong. I fumbled for something to make it sound better.
“You know, they can get stuff off your phone at the store, import your contacts and transfer—”
“I just need my photos and vids,” he said. “All the rest of it is
bullshit anyway. Contacts?” Jamie laughed, and it sounded bitter. “Jesus, Kiley. How many people do we know, anyway? How hard is it to keep track in this ass crack of a town?”
Well, he was kind of right about that. I only had maybe five people in my contacts these days, since I’d deleted Marina. I’d thought he had lots, though. Jamie was popular, right? He seemed to be, anyway, but I guessed over the last year maybe not as much.
I shut up, because Jamie clearly wasn’t in any mood to hear me try to make things better. I hastily shoved my own phone into my pocket and sat quietly for the next few blocks and stoplights.
Finally, we were out of town, into empty flatlands. The carnival was in the empty parking lot of a long-shut-down superstore, and in the falling night you could see the glow of the flashing lights a long ways off. Traffic wasn’t much to speak of in Smithfield, but there were more cars on the road than I’d expected, and they were all heading to the same place we were.
Jamie turned the car into the parking lot and found a spot near the back, in the dark. He always parked out of the way. No door dings that way. I unbuckled and scrambled out of the car, but by the time I’d emerged he was already six steps ahead of me, walking toward the registration booth.
The flashing multicolored lights (some were burned out) distracted from the overall crappy look of the booth; the red-and-yellow canvas was dirty, the countertop was cracked and ancient, the plastic shield was scratched, and the middle-aged woman sitting on the other side really needed to lay off the red hair dye. That, and the way-too-heavy makeup, made her look desperate.
So did the way she eyed my boyfriend—like she knew him, or at least had expected him. She got this strange little smile . . . and then she turned her head and looked at me, and her eyes—I could have sworn they changed color. Just for a second.
I stepped closer to him and took his hand, but he shook me off impatiently and reached for his wallet. He asked how much and the woman pointed at the sign pasted on the plastic as if she was way too exhausted to answer that stupid question one more time. Jamie peeled off bills and passed them over and got a couple of strings of generic tear-off tickets in return. He handed me some, turned, and walked into the carnival. I could tell he was still pissed off about the phone, but honestly, it hadn’t been my fault, it hadn’t.
It only took about half an hour before we ran out of tickets, because the prices on the skeevy games were ridiculous, and I’d wanted to ride the Ferris wheel so Jamie would have a chance to kiss me (he didn’t). After that, Jamie went off to buy more tickets. He was gone a long time, long enough that I bought myself a hot chocolate and sat down at one of the splintered wooden tables set up next to the concession stand.
“Hey,” said a tentative voice.
I looked up. There was a boy standing there. I knew him, I guess; he looked familiar, anyway, but there wasn’t really much to recognize about him. A round, bland sort of face, nothing to make you pay much attention.
“Hey,” I replied, and got out my phone, just in case I was going to need to look busy.
“Um, I’m Matt. I’m in your English class,” he said. “You’re Kiley, right? Just wanted to say hi.”
“Hi.” I felt strange about this, and worried—not about the boy, about Jamie coming back and finding him here. “Sorry, um, I have to get this.”
I pretended to get a call and held the phone up to my ear. The kid probably knew it was a lie, and rude, but he just nodded, put his hands in his pockets, and walked off, head down.
I felt a little bad about it, but truthfully, he shouldn’t be talking
to me. Jamie didn’t like it when boys came around, even if they were harmless.
Since I had the phone out anyway, I figured I’d better check my messages. I turned it on and felt a weird, almost world-shifting shock.
This wasn’t my phone.
I didn’t realize it at first . . . I expected to see my apps and background, but instead I got sports scores and game apps and a pinup-girl background.
This was Jamie’s phone.
I understood then: somehow the dangle that should have been there had snapped off my phone when it fell in the car. My phone had been the one that had broken, and I’d picked up Jamie’s by accident.
Well, he would be happy, I thought, that his phone was okay after all. Mine was no big loss.
I waited for him to come back, but he didn’t. I knew his swipe code. He hadn’t shared it with me, but I’d seen him put it in often enough on the keypad.
As I entered the numbers slowly, I still wasn’t sure I wanted to do this.
His phone accepted the passcode. I waited some more.
Eventually, though I knew it was wrong, I couldn’t resist looking through his call lists—you know, to see who else might have been calling and texting him.
Boring. His besties, mostly. Nothing drama-worthy.
He did have a lot of pictures and video on there, which was what he’d been so worried about losing. I thought at first the pictures were of me, and some were—but not all of them.
Some were of girls I didn’t know.
I hesitated over the first video, my heart pounding now, the aftertaste of hot chocolate turning sour in my mouth.
I shouldn’t, I thought. He’ll kill me.
But I had to do it. I had to know if he was cheating on me.
The girl in the video looked like me, kind of—dirty-blond hair caught up in a messy knot at the back of her neck. The video showed her laughing and teasing whoever was holding the camera, and then the phone got put down, angled, and Jamie slipped onto the screen with her.
I felt sick and dizzy, and almost shut off the phone.
Maybe I should have. Maybe if I had, none of this would have happened . . . but maybe that would have actually been worse, in the end.
I sat there with my cooling hot cocoa on the table in front of me, rooted to the spot, holding his phone with both hands as I watched him kiss this nameless blond whore, and I wanted to kill her for trying to take him away from me because I needed Jamie, I needed him. . . .
And then Jamie put his hands around her neck and started to squeeze.
I honestly thought it was a joke, or something kinky, I really did. I thought: maybe it was some amateur movie or something, and it was all just acting, and at the end they’d laugh and it would all be okay.
But I couldn’t believe that, not really. For one thing, the camera stayed on the girl’s face, and she was scared. Really scared. Her skin turned redder, redder; her eyes got bigger and bloodshot; and she clawed at Jamie’s hands and wrists, slapped at him weakly, and her eyes rolled up in her head so they were all white, and he kept on choking her—tighter, tighter, and her mouth was open and her tongue was swollen and purple. . . .
And then, right when I knew she was dead, he let her fall back. And he laughed. And started stripping off her clothes.
Like undressing a doll. Like posing one too.
And then he unzipped his jeans and knelt down.
And I couldn’t help it. I watched all the way to the end, and when it finished, I felt empty. It was like I’d died, too, like I’d had all the life squeezed out of me. All I felt was dizzy, and all I heard was a vast, ringing silence.
I couldn’t think what I was going to do. I couldn’t think at all.
I put his phone away with shaking hands. The bright, cheap carnival lights around me whirled and blinked, and the dirty, chipped rides spun, and people screamed and screamed, and I wanted to run but I didn’t know how, and I didn’t know where to go.
I found myself staring at a banner that flapped in the cold night breeze overhead. On it was a girl as white as ice, apparently frozen, except that her eyes were open and bright silver. It said, SEE THE COLD GIRL! DEAD AND YET SHE LIVES!
I stared hard at it, until my eyes started to water, because it was almost like it was alive, that face. Almost like it was looking at me out of that banner.
I was still focused on it when Jamie crept up behind me, grabbed me around the waist, and swung me—and I screamed and he laughed, and laughed, and it sounded just like the laughter in the cell phone, cruel and lazy and awful.
I pushed Jamie away and screamed again. Loud. It didn’t matter; my cry was lost in all the noise from the roller coaster rocketing by, trailing the eerie yells of those trapped on it.
He hadn’t come alone. There were a bunch of boys with him.
I pushed him back again when he tried to take hold of me, and he stumbled back, tripped over his buddy Alan’s feet, and fell down.
“What the hell, Kiley?” he said, and shook off the hands of some of the rest of his crew who were trying to help him up. There
were six or seven of them, all kind of the same, the way cliques tend to be; his gang were all tall, good-looking guys. Not jocks, because none of them really cared enough about working at anything to be jocks; not nerds, because they weren’t really smart. Just the good-looking upper average of the high school set. They did what Jamie said.
“ ’Sup with your bitch, man?” Alan asked. “Where’d the attitude come from?”
Jamie had a kind of cold, black gravity to him when he was angry, and I could feel it now, tilting the world in his direction. His posse drew tighter around him as he stood.
“What the hell?” he repeated, and came right up on me, shoving me against the hard wooden block of the table. It hurt, and a splinter dug into my butt, but I didn’t move. I didn’t fight back. I never did. I froze, staring into that pretty, cold face, and tried to think what to say. The world had ended—my world—and words just seemed useless now. But I couldn’t accuse him. I couldn’t.
“You scared me,” I whispered instead.
That made him smile, like it pleased him to hear it.
“Scared you,” he said. “Wow. I didn’t know you scared that easy, Kiles. Jeez, it’s the middle of the carnival. Nothing’s going to happen to you here.”
No, it would happen somewhere private. Somewhere dark. Somewhere isolated. Like that girl. He’d left her somewhere, naked and dead, face swollen, eyes bugged out and staring in terror at the dark.
I glanced up as the banner flapped again, with a sound like snapping bones, and for a second I was confused. It should have had the Cold Girl on it, but this time it instead had a fortune-teller on it, with the words MADAME LAIDA KNOWS ALL.
“Hey!” Jamie snapped his fingers in front of my face. “What’s
wrong with you? If you’ve got good drugs, you’re supposed to share.”
His boys laughed. I said nothing, just stared at him. He looked so normal. Just like the old Jamie, the one that had existed before I’d seen what was on his cell phone . . . only it wasn’t him, it wasn’t the one I’d loved so much it hurt.
That Jamie had never really existed at all. I didn’t know who this one was, and he terrified me.
“Awww, come on, don’t look at me like that. You know I’d never hurt you, baby,” he said, and kissed me. I wanted to gag. And scream. And cry. Something chilly had settled over me and soaked into my bones, turned them into fragile ice. I knew I’d never really feel warm again.
“Hey, hey, Kiley? You okay?”
“Okay,” I said. I didn’t mean it. It was an empty set of sounds that stood in for screaming. He stared at me, frowning, and I knew he didn’t believe me. He turned and glanced around, and Alan locked eyes with him.
I knew that I’d shown him too much, and my heart started running faster, faster, faster.
“Hey,” Jamie said, in a very different kind of tone. “Let me use your phone a second, okay?”
“My—my phone?” I stared at him stupidly. The lump of it in my pocket seemed hot, as if it might sear right through my skin. “Um—I left it in your car.”
“You did?” He smiled, wide and easy, but when he looked back at me, his eyes were flat and dark. “Well, that was stupid. What if it gets stolen?”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Stupid. Sorry. I—I can go get it—”
“No.” He nodded at Alan, reached in his pocket, and fished out the keys, which he tossed to his best friend. “Alan’ll get it. How about you and me go on a ride while he’s gone?”
“A ride?” My brain felt numbed, and with his posse standing around him, I felt like a rabbit cornered by a pack of wild dogs. No way out.
“Yeah, Kiley, a ride. What, you don’t speak Carnival?” He brandished a long tail of tickets in one hand and grabbed me by the arm with the other. “Just you and me, in the dark. Won’t that be fun? Maybe you’ll have time to give me a little something before it’s over.”
“Let go of her,” a voice said from behind me. An old man’s voice this time.
Jamie looked past me and did an exaggerated double take so fake, nobody could mistake it for anything else.
“Hey, look, guys, it’s Coach Lame-ass. Oh, shit, sorry, I meant Coach Lamar. Sorry, sir.”
I glanced back and saw the boys’ baseball coach standing there, holding a hot dog dripping with relish in one hand and a soda in the other. Beside him was a woman about his age, who I guessed was Mrs. Lame-ass. The coach was fireplug-wide and short and totally ugly, with his balding head and pug nose and muddy-brown eyes, and I’d called him “Coach Lame-ass,” too, lots of times, but just now I was so grateful to him that I wanted to sob.
He was staring straight at Jamie, and it came to me with a shock that the tight expression on his face was genuine disgust. He didn’t like my boyfriend. Not at all. Not ever.
“I said, let her go,” the coach said. His wife murmured something to him, looking worried, but he shook her off and put his hot dog and Coke down on the table. I noticed, finally, that he had kids with him, too—a girl about ten, and a boy about twelve. They looked worried too. “Now, Pierson.”
“No offense, Coach, but this ain’t school,” Jamie said. He sounded pleasant enough, but his grip tightened around my arm, and it hurt enough to leave bruises. “Tell him you’re fine, Kiley.”
I’m not, I thought. God, please, just let me go. . . .
But I knew he would never do that. Jamie knew, somehow, that I had seen what was on his phone. I couldn’t hide it. I couldn’t disguise the terror and horror.
If he let me go, it would only be to let me run into the dark, where there’d be no one to hear, and no one to see except the camera lens when he caught up to me.
So I licked my lips and I said, “I’m fine, sir.” If I could stay here, in the lights, I had a chance of finding someone who could help me. Not Coach Lame-ass; they’d beat him to a pulp, and his wife and kids too. “Don’t worry about me.”
“Yeah, what she said,” Jamie said. “C’mon, Kiley, let’s go get on a ride while Alan comes back with your phone.”
The other boys looked at me like I was a piece of dead meat as Jamie tugged me away, heading for the haunted-house ride. It was a cheap tin thing, creaking as the cars moved through it; a giant, peeling illustration of the grim reaper loomed down over the lines queuing up for it. I looked over my shoulder as we left Coach Lamar and his family behind. Jamie’s posse hadn’t drifted off, like I’d hoped; they had taken over one side of the long table.
Coach was watching us go, still frowning, and his wife was whispering to him. He finally, reluctantly, sat down with his kids.
There were other people from school around the carnival, but nobody paid attention to me, only to Jamie, who got smiles and nods. I wasn’t popular, I wasn’t unpopular. I was wallpaper—which was a good thing, since it normally meant people left me alone, but a bad thing, because I was invisible, and right now I desperately needed people to see. I felt hollowed out inside, and not only did no one notice, most likely no one would have cared even if they had.
I saw Vanessa Seers, with her glossy perfect hair and makeup and shoes, and her coterie of giggling BFFs. Vanessa made eyes at Jamie and he made them back, watching her as she headed off for
some other part of the carnival. The Geek Squad came past us in a tight knot, jabbering to each other about books and DVDs and some lame-ass anime festival they were going to. I even saw Ruth Sheldon and Lyle Garrett, the local brains, who held down the top end of the bell curve. They were holding hands. Nerd love.
I saw Matt, who’d talked to me before, but he was deep in conversation with some other girl I couldn’t remember, and he never glanced over to see how much trouble I was in.
My brain felt like it was melting, and I was so cold I shivered constantly. I needed to do something, and I knew that; but part of me, the survival part, just wouldn’t let me. It was convinced that if I stayed quiet, passive, this would all go away. It was stupid, but I couldn’t seem to summon up anything but a bone-deep conviction that somehow, if I didn’t fight him, it would all be okay.
You need to scream and fight him, some very tiny part of me, the brave part, said. People are here. They can help you. They can call the police!
But my brain shied away from the whole idea of the police—God, no, I couldn’t even think about it. I didn’t know who the girl was, and maybe—maybe—somebody had just sent him the video, right? Maybe it wasn’t Jamie on there at all and I’d gotten it all wrong. Maybe it was some other guy. Maybe it was faked. What would happen if it really was some kind of movie, and I was making a big deal out of nothing?
Then why did he keep it? Why would he want to see that again, and show it to his friends?
I couldn’t think about it; it made me want to throw up. I licked my lips and said, “I need to go to the bathroom, Jamie.”
“Can’t,” he said. “We’ll lose our place in line.”
That was crap, and we both knew it; the lines were maybe ten people at most, and moved fast. I tried to pull free, but he yanked me closer still.
“Listen,” he said softly, in a deadly cool voice. “Alan’s coming back with your phone. Don’t go running off, okay?”
I stared hard at the blinking, flashing, gyrating carnival lights until everything just melted into a meaningless sea of sparkles, trying not to think about anything, wishing I was dead, wishing I’d never picked up Jamie’s phone at all.
But I had, and that would never, ever change.
My boyfriend’s a monster. Did that make me a monster too? I knew girls who covered up for their guys, lied for them to the cops, all that kind of stuff; but it was for dumb stunts or minor crimes, not . . . not this. If I told somebody, would it make me a snitch? Would everybody hate me? His friends would, all his handsome tall buds. Their girlfriends would hate me on principle for ratting him out. Half the rest of the girls in school thought Jamie was totally cute, and they’d loathe me for telling lies about him, even if the proof came out. They’d never believe it anyway.
If I could just get away somehow, I could go home. Talk to Mom. No—I could just imagine how that would work. She’d go to Jamie’s mom, and then Jamie would find out, and . . . My imagination just stopped there, because I couldn’t honestly think what would happen next. And maybe I just didn’t want to think about it.
I stared at the man running the dark ride as we drew closer and closer. Jamie’s grip on my arm never loosened, and I knew by now it would be flowering black bruises under the skin.
And I knew, with a sick feeling of anger, that Jamie probably liked it that he was hurting me. So I studied the carnie running the ride. He was a big guy, muscular, shaved head, tattoos running up his neck and down his flexing arms. He didn’t smile; customer service was not in his job description. He looked bored, and distant, and he just went through the mechanical process of loading people in the seats, strapping them down, and operating the ride controls. The machinery looked ancient, and in a weird
way, so did he. Maybe it was how he moved, because his face seemed young.
It was his eyes that aged him, I decided. Old, angry eyes. And when they met mine, they flashed red. Blood red.
A new chill washed over me, like being hit by an unexpected bucket of water. It was as if something had slapped me with an ice-cold hand and said, Wake up.
And then we were at the front of the line.
Jamie climbed into the seat that was open, and to do it, he let go of me . . . and I stepped back when he reached again for me.
He froze. “Kiles, come on. Don’t be this way.” They were coaxing words, but I knew, from the tight, angry set of his lips, that what waited for me in the dark was—at the very least—a fist, and maybe worse. “Baby, come on.”
I felt the sudden heat of the ride operator at my back, and his hand fell on my shoulder. It was heavy, and real, and it should have scared the shit out of me, but instead I breathed in a sudden spasm of relief.
“Get in or leave,” he said. “You’re holding up the line.”
“I’m leaving,” I said.
The words were only a faint whisper, and almost too soft to hear, but I knew he’d meant them for me. Jamie grabbed for me, but the carnie got between us and slammed down the locking bar.
“Your boyfriend’s going to be taking a little ride. Madame Laida wants to see you.”
I backed up another couple of steps. Jamie shouted my name and tried to yank himself out from under the bar, but the carnie was quick to hit the button on the panel next to him.
Jamie’s cart lurched off into the darkness of the ride, and me . . .
I turned and ran.
Jamie’s posse was nearby, and some of them got up, not sure
whether they ought to stop me. But just then I saw Alan standing in the shadows of the concession stand, his own phone in his hand. He was watching me.
And I heard the phone in my pocket start to ring, and its glow was clearly visible through the pocket of my pants.
Alan held up something that glittered in the light—the broken dangle from my phone, which he must have found in the car. Then he pointed at me with a finger gun, and pulled the trigger.
I gasped, turned, and ran blindly in the opposite direction, deeper into the midway. People swirled around me talking, laughing, having actual futures and lives. But they felt like ghosts to me. I looked around wildly for a familiar face, or for a cop, or anyone who could help.
Another ride operator—the teacup ride—looked up as I passed, and I thought I saw his eyes flash red too. One of the midway booth trolls shilling games watched me with eyes that seemed to shift colors from blue to crimson. I was hallucinating now, I thought, because it seemed as if they were all looking at me, as if I was drawing their attention the way a gazelle draws lions.
I ran and ran, shoving blindly through the crowd, and finally I found myself standing in front of a billowing, dirty tent the color of cheap mustard, with a sign in front that said MADAME LAIDA KNOWS ALL. Some kind of fortune-teller—the tattered banner showed the standard gypsy woman in a turban, staring mysteriously over a glowing crystal ball.
I realized, with a horrified jolt, that I’d managed to run out of the crowd, and I knew that Jamie’s friends, especially Alan, would be right behind me.
I didn’t have a choice. I ran into Madame Laida’s tent.
Entering felt as if I had run through some kind of barrier—not a real one, but like an electrical field that tingled cold on my skin. And then I was inside a dim, small space that smelled of mold
and incense. There was a velvet-draped table, two chairs, and a crystal ball sitting in the center of the cloth—and no one else in the room.
I spun, short of breath now, sure that Alan and his buds were seconds behind me, but I heard nothing—no shouting, no footsteps. Even the noise and music of the carnival was muted, as if it had moved a long ways off.
“Sit,” a voice said, and when I spun around again, I saw an old woman sitting on the other side of the table. She hadn’t been there before, and I hadn’t heard her come in, but I supposed she must have approached from the rear of the tent when I was concentrating on the other side. She looked like the stereotypical fortune-teller—cheap, shiny robes, scarves, layers of jewelry that chimed together when she shifted positions. Her turban had a fake red stone on it, and a peacock feather that had seen better days. She looked pinched and tired.
When she smiled, I saw her crooked teeth were yellow from coffee or smoking or both. “Sit down, child.”
I didn’t. I went to the flap of the tent and tried to see outside without moving the canvas.
“If you’re worried about his friends, they won’t find you here,” Madame Laida said, which drew me back around to stare at her. Her thin gray eyebrows raised. “Sit down, Kiley.”
I went very still inside. “How do you know my name?”
“Madame Laida knows all,” she said. “It says so right on my sign. Don’t be afraid. They won’t come in here.”
I sank down in the chair across from her, blinking now. The room really did stink of mold, and the incense tasted a little rancid in my mouth.
“How do you know me? Really?”
“We have our ways, Kiley Reynolds. Hell, maybe I just used Facebook. If you’re worried about Jamie finding his way here, he
won’t. He and his friends are tearing up the midway looking for you. We’re letting him do that to keep him occupied.” She seemed to find it cute somehow. “I wanted to speak to you, before she does.”
It wasn’t possible she knew my name, or Jamie’s. I felt dizzy and a little sick from the smell in there, and the heat, and the bitter black intensity of her eyes on me. She pulled out a cigarette from a pack beneath her robes, lit up with a cheap lighter, and took a long pull of smoke, which she then breathed out over the crystal ball.
It was as if the cigarette smoke had gotten trapped inside the glass, because suddenly the crystal clouded up, swirling, and shapes began to form.
I froze, staring. It happened in shades of gray, but I watched the girl struggling in Jamie’s clenched hands, watched her choke and die, watched him rape her all over again. When it was over, and the smoke went back to random swirls, I realized that I was hunched over, both arms protecting my stomach as if she’d punched me hard.
“How . . . how did you do that?” My voice sounded shaky and thin.
Madame Laida hadn’t watched the show in her crystal ball; she’d kept staring at me, though I couldn’t really say how I knew that, since my attention had been riveted on what she’d shown me. Now she took another drag on her cigarette, blew it up toward the tent’s roof, and said, “So, Kiley, let’s get the bad news out of the way: you’re going to die. I can’t usually see in this much detail, but she’s close by tonight, and she’s giving it to me in full color and sound. That blows, by the way.”
“I—I’m going to—” I couldn’t handle that, not at all, so I lunged for the other thing. “What do you mean, ‘she’? Who are you talking about?”
“She,” Madame Laida said, and shrugged. “The Cold Girl. She
likes carnivals, turns out. The boss thought he was buying some freak attraction, but she was nothing like that. She latched onto us back in the Dust Bowl days, and she’s been with us ever since. Doesn’t show herself much anymore, though. I think she’s taking a special interest in you.”
“What . . . what do you mean, I’m . . . going to—”
Laida’s eyebrow cocked upward. “Do you really need the details? Honey, really, it’s lots better if you don’t know. You can’t avoid it, so there’s no point in getting all upset about it. I’m sorry to be so blunt, but we don’t have a lot of time to waste here; your prince of a boyfriend isn’t going to let you just vanish. Here. Give me your hand. I might be able to do something to help.”
Instead of doing as she said, I clutched my hand closer to my chest and stood up so fast I knocked the chair over onto the worn old carpets. Madame Laida looked unsurprised. I wasn’t sure anything ever surprised her. She shrugged and took a long pull on her cigarette that transformed half of it into embers and ash, and behind the smoke I saw her eyes flash red.
“Well,” she said, “how you go about it is your business. I was just going to give you a little comfort, but if you don’t want it, I guess we’re done here. Sorry, kid. Life sucks sometimes, and my job isn’t to change that.”
“But—” I couldn’t get my head straight, couldn’t get my breath now. “What am I supposed to do?”
“Run,” she said, and tapped the ash off her smoke into a silver tray I was sure hadn’t been on the table before. “Go on, girl. Run for your life. Cold Girl’s waiting out there somewhere for you. She’ll find you.”
“Can’t.” This time she smoked her cigarette all the way down to the butt and stubbed it out in the tray. She blew the smoke at the crystal ball again, and inside, gray mist swirled in nauseating patterns.
“And wouldn’t if I could, hon. People like me don’t get involved if we want to keep on breathing; this is the business of immortals. It’s the way it works. Time for you to go now.”
She made a little fluttering motion with her hand, and I felt myself getting physically shoved, as if a strong wind were pushing me . . . but there was no wind. My hair didn’t even flutter.
I fought it, but I couldn’t stop myself from being pushed to the opening of the tent, and when I grabbed for the fabric to stop my slide, it seemed slippery under my fingers.
And then I was outside, and there was no opening at all.
“Hey!” I shouted, and grabbed at the fabric, trying to find the way back inside. “Hey, wait, you can’t— Madame Laida! Help me!”
“Hey, Kiles,” said a voice from behind me that stopped me cold. Frozen. “Help you with what?”
“Nothing,” I whispered. Tears suddenly bloomed in my eyes, and I shook all over. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry? Guess you are. Guess you shouldn’t have gotten all up in my business, bitch. Did you like what you saw?”
All of a sudden Jamie’s arm was around my throat, pulling me off balance, choking me. I gagged for breath and went up on my tiptoes as he pulled backward. He still had friends with him—only three of them, including Alan. I didn’t know where the others had gone. Maybe he didn’t trust them enough. I gagged and gasped and hoped that one of his buddies would do something, anything . . . but they just stood there, not looking at me at all.
Jamie’s breath puffed hot against my ear as he said, “I will break your neck if you try to run,” and I felt all the resistance go out of me. He meant it.
“We’re going to walk now,” he continued. “We’re going to just go quietly to my car, right, babe?”
Jamie pressed something sharp into my back, low and to my side. “This is a knife. And it’s right over your kidney. You know
what happens if I cut your renal artery, Kiley? You really want to learn how fast you can bleed out?”
I was terrified, and I kept walking. Maybe it wasn’t actually a knife, but this was Jamie, and I didn’t know him anymore, I really didn’t. The others fell in behind us, and we moved through the outer darkness around the tents. The noise and glitter and cheap tinsel shine of the carnival fell behind us. There weren’t any lights out in the parking lot.
Or any people.
I stopped. The blade dug in a little, and I stopped breathing.
“I want my phone back, bitch.”
I don’t know where it came from—maybe from the matter-of-fact way Madame Laida had told me I was going to die. Maybe it just didn’t matter anymore.
Or maybe I’d finally grown a spine.
“You’re a monster,” I said. “You want your phone? You want to show everybody what you did? Brag about it? Fuck you, Jamie! Go crawl around and look for it!”
I took his phone out of my pocket and threw it as far as I could into the dark. Far enough, I hoped. At least it would keep them occupied for a while. If I was really, really lucky, maybe it would be lost in the dark, and the cops would find it later. Game over, Jamie.
Alan took his own phone out and tried to call Jamie’s, but it really was busted this time; nothing sparked out there in the shadows.
“Go!” Jamie barked at his friends, and Alan and the two others loped off to search. “Don’t come back without it!”
He hit me in the head when I started to laugh, so hard that the world wobbled and went black and red, and then he hit me again and it went completely, utterly dark.
I WOKE UP in a ditch, and I knew I was dying. It was dark, and cold, and I felt the sticky warm trickle of blood down my cheek.
I couldn’t move. I was facedown in the sand, covered with trash and weeds, and whatever he’d done to me, I couldn’t feel anything much from the waist down; my legs were useless lumps. I was too weak to move my arms much, and when I tried, the pain was white-hot, boiling like lava inside me. I screamed, weakly, but the night and the wind swallowed it.
So alone, but I could hear the distant tinny chaos of the carnival music. He hadn’t bothered to take me far before he’d done it.
I guessed he thought that my murder would be blamed on the carnival workers. And he was probably right about that, though Coach Lamar would tell people he’d seen me with Jamie. Still, nobody would believe that Jamie would do a thing like that. No, it’d be the strangers in town, and I’d be just another random, sad victim.
I drifted, and eventually the music went quiet. It turned darker, I suppose because the carnival shut off the lights. I passed out at some point.
WHEN I WOKE, it was brighter. The sun beat down on me. I could hear the rattle and growl of cars and trucks passing on the road. I couldn’t have been too far from people, from help, but everything seemed as far away as the moon.
When I turned my head, I could see the sloping sand walls of the ditch. They stretched up to infinity. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t pull myself out. When I tried, the sand slipped through my fingers and the pain, oh, God, the pain was like being drowned in acid.
I slept, or went unconscious, numerous times. The cut from
my head stopped bleeding but I was still losing blood somewhere else.
I felt so tired.
THE COLD GIRL came, on the second night. There was a sound she brought with her, a hissing rattle like sleet against windows. She was pretty but unreal, like a mannequin, and her skin was as white and cool as snow in moonlight when she stood in the ditch and looked down at me with a strange, beautiful, terrible smile.
Then she lowered herself gracefully to her knees. I’d never seen anything as beautiful as she was, or as awful; and when she leaned over to look into my wide, staring eyes, I felt a surge of cold go through me, as if what blood I had left in my body had frozen into hard chunks.
Her eyes were black. Not like the night sky that wheeled overhead; that was really a dark blue. No, this was black, true black, an absolute absence of light and color. A well into nothing at all.
And then, slowly, they swirled into a brilliant fiery red.
“I smelled your fear miles away,” she whispered. Her pale white hair brushed my face like snowflakes, and her voice sounded like it was echoes of screams. “Many towns ago. You were marked already for this. That means you’re mine.”
I couldn’t talk. My mouth was as dry as sand. The best I could do was croak something out, and it didn’t actually sound like “What are you?” but she smiled anyway and brushed my lank, blood-stiff hair back from my face. I’d thought her smile was cold, but her fingers—it was like being brushed with liquid nitrogen. I could feel my skin freeze and crystallize under that loving touch.
“Your people have lots of names for me,” she told me in a thousand voices, all screaming, screaming. “But I guess the one
you really understand would be vampire. I can save you, if you want saving. Do you?”
You’d think I’d say yes. Something in me struggled and squealed still, like an animal in a trap, but that part was already dead, really. It just didn’t understand that it was gone.
“No,” I whispered. I could make that understood, at least. “I don’t want to hurt anymore.”
“Such a bright child.” She kept stroking my face, and the cold pain, that felt good now—it felt hard and cutting and right. “Shhh. This is the second night of your dying, and there’s no one to watch over you while you slip away. I could just take you if I wanted. I don’t always ask, you know.”
The cold, oh, God, it was in me now, over me, weighing me down and tying me into the earth with bonds of ice and stone, and I felt everything, everything go. No more blood. No more pain except the cold whisper of her touch, the bright shine of stars, the rattle of sleet.
“Let me show you,” she said, “what your life with me could be. Now, rise up.”
I couldn’t, but somehow I did. I stood to face her. I was moonlight and chill white flesh, and I knew the crimson was in my eyes, just like it was in hers. I felt so . . . so different. So other. I had the shape of Kiley Reynolds, and the knowledge, but all that humanity . . . that was gone, tied to the sad little beaten piece of flesh lying in the ditch at my feet.
“You have until the sun rises to drink,” she told me. I heard the dry clattering sound of sleet again, felt it on my skin. I heard screams and music rising inside me, and something else. Something powerful. “Right now, you walk as a shade, a shadow. If you drink, you will rise in flesh and join me. But only if you drink. Otherwise, when the sun rises, you die. Drink, and be like me.”
I wasn’t like her. Nobody was like the Cold Girl—I understood
that immediately and instinctively. She was the spirit, and I was an echo . . . but an echo she had shouted back at the world, defiant and full of fury.
But I did know what she wanted. What she expected. It rose up inside of me like that smoky gray replay of Jamie’s brutality inside Madame Laida’s crystal ball.
I looked down into the ditch. It wasn’t deep after all, only a couple of feet, really. My body lay there, half covered in blown dirt and trash. A snake had slithered up on my legs and fallen asleep, though I couldn’t have been very warm for him. My eyes were open, dark and blind, but I was still breathing, just a little.
Still dying, drop by slow, agonizing drop.
But human pain didn’t hurt anymore.
The whisper of ice faded, and when I looked up I saw empty flatland, stars, and realized that the Cold Girl was gone.
The moon was up, full and white, and it showed me the road I needed to follow. The carnival was in full swing, music wheezing, lights flashing. People moved like ghosts inside of it, but I wasn’t going there. Not yet.
It wasn’t far, only a steady, relentless glide back to the borders of our small town. I passed silent houses, blind black windows reflecting like empty mirrors. I passed winter-stripped trees, and as I did, their branches whipped and rattled and icicles formed on their tips.
I was passing the park next to the high school when I realized that I wasn’t the only wanderer in the night. There was someone sitting on the child-sized swing, slowly rocking it in small, depressed arcs. I couldn’t see clearly, but it looked like a boy.
I didn’t mean to turn his direction, but there was a sense of loss around him, something that shivered dark in the air around him. The closer I got, the thicker it became, like a living cloak of darkness . . . and it smelled sweet and delicious.
He was dressed in a black hoodie, and I couldn’t see his face. His jeans were ripped; his kicks were filthy and battered. He looked up at me and took in a deep, startled breath, but he didn’t say anything. He stopped the motion of the swing and sat perfectly still, hands tight around the chains. I didn’t say anything. He hesitated, then let go with his right hand and pulled his hood back.
“Kiley?” he said. “Kiley Reynolds?”
I didn’t answer. I wasn’t Kiley anymore. I was something else . . . but the name reminded me of who that crushed, bleeding thing was lying in the ditch. Still dying.
“It’s Matt,” he said. “Matt Saretti. From your English class. I saw you at the carnival.”
One of the wallpaper people, just like me, Matt ate, he slept, he existed, and no one cared. I’d never really looked at him before. He seemed . . . nice.
“People are looking for you,” he said. “Your mom—your mom’s going batshit. They’ve got flyers up all over town. Where have you been?”
Somewhere on the other side of this park, Jamie was sleeping. I could feel him out there, taste the strange, bitter discord of his nightmares.
I had time.
I sat down in the swing beside Matt and pushed just a little to set it rocking back and forth, a slow pendulum movement that scraped my bare white feet over the dirt. To make myself real enough to affect wood and metal was a little difficult, but with concentration I managed to do it. The plain white dress I was wearing fluttered in the breeze of movement.
All around the park, dogs howled, and nightmares bit, and the innocent shivered and slept on, troubled.
“I’ve been busy dying,” I told Matt. It was hard to talk. Hard to
find the words when everything inside me was frozen solid, locked tight. All the pain and fear and despair. “I’m still dying.”
He swallowed hard. “Are you . . . are you a ghost?”
I considered that, because I wasn’t sure. “I think so,” I said. “Because I’m mostly dead now.”
“But not all the way.”
Matt let the silence go on for a few seconds, and then he said, “Do you want me to find you? Save you?”
I looked at him and smiled. He made a thin, terrified sound, and I think he would have run away if he could have, at that point. “I don’t need help,” I said, and every word was as bright and sharp and cutting as ice. “I’m what happens when there is no help.”
He licked his lips and asked, “Are you going to kill me?”
For the first time I realized that the warm, sweet, tantalizing fragrance that had drawn me to him was his life. His blood, pulsing through his veins. I could see it running under his skin in faint red trails, sweet, so sweet, and I felt so hungry and empty.
But something stopped me. Something odd in his voice. “Why do you want to die?” I asked him.
He flinched as if I’d hit him. “Why do you?”
“I didn’t ask to die,” I said. “He killed me. There’s a difference.”
“But you said you’re still alive. You could be saved. But since you don’t want me to save you, you must want to die, right?”
I waited for an answer to come to me, but nothing did. There were no reasons, really. Finally I said, “I’m tired of hurting.”
Matt stared at me without blinking. “Yeah,” he said. “Me too.”
And for a moment, just a moment, I felt the ice shift inside me. Felt something melt, just a little.
Just enough to make me resist the hot, pure whisper of his blood.
“I’m sorry, Matt. I’m not here for you. I can’t be here for you.”
“Because you’re not the guilty one.”
He flinched, face tight and drawn. “I am,” he said. “I’m guilty.”
I shook my head very slowly. “I’d know if you had great sins,” I said. “I can taste it, all the guilt out there. It tastes like blood. But yours . . . yours isn’t real. It’s in your head.”
“You want me to prove it?”
I pointed at one of the houses out there in the dark. “That one’s a thief,” I said. “He breaks into houses and steals stuff to pawn, for drugs. He raped a woman four years ago when she caught him in her house.” After a second, a light went on in the house, and a shadow passed across the window. Inside, the man was shivering, chilled to the bone, and he didn’t know why.
I pointed at another one. “That one beats her children. One of them died, but her husband told the cops the boy fell down the stairs.” I heard a thin cry of anguish from the woman inside as her nightmares twisted hard. Another light blazed on.
I pointed to a window of yet another house, and then another. “That one poisoned his wife twenty years ago. And that one, he and his friend beat up a homeless man just for fun.”
All the nightmares, screaming, and it felt good to bring them out.
I looked back at Matt and said, “You see? It’s not in you.”
He watched me stand up and finally said, “Where are you going?”
“I have something to finish,” I said. “And tomorrow I’ll be gone.”
I started to walk away, across the grass. Where my feet touched it, the blades turned silver as they froze.
“Wait!” Matt called. I looked back at him. “Tell me where to find you! Let me help you!”
“I’m not worth saving,” I said. “I should have done something when I had the chance.”
“You’re worth it to me,” he said, and stood up. “Kiley. You are to me.”
“That’s sweet,” I said. “But you can’t save me now. Good-bye, Matt.”
“Kiley!” I kept walking. “Kiley, I’m going to find you! At least tell me where to look!”
“Ask Madame Laida,” I said. “She knows everything.”
I didn’t look back as I left him.
JAMIE’S HOUSE WAS a quiet ranch-style place with floral curtains and neat hedges, and as I came up the walk, I left footprints of slick white ice behind me. The hedges turned into a lacework of silver and glass and shattered at a touch from my thin white fingers. The window frosted over as I drew closer, and behind me the tree branches hissed and rattled and writhed.
I shattered his window with a whisper and climbed inside.
Everything turned blue and white, frosted with my rage, my despair, and on the bed Jamie’s breath fogged up white like steam as he shivered and burrowed beneath his covers. It did no good. The blankets turned to hard sheets of ice and locked him down, and as his eyes opened in terror, I leaned over him.
“Hey, baby. You miss me?”
He screamed, but it came out as a thin scratch of sound, and I breathed it in and added it to the screams that were already inside me, echoing in my voice.
I leaned forward and brushed his lips with mine. His turned frost blue, and when he tried to speak they cracked and bled. I
licked the sweet crimson away, and my tongue left trails of ice behind.
He tasted so good. So good. So warm.
I froze the skin over his wrist and shattered it with a tap so that his blood fountained out, warm and desperate to escape. It made dark icicles where it dripped from his arm, and I broke them free and ate them like frozen treats.
Jamie was stiff with terror in his bed, and I couldn’t imagine how I’d ever thought he was anything but pathetic. Less of a monstrous threat, he looked like a scared little boy. His own evil ate away inside him like cancer, eroding every good thing that had ever been there.
He was seventeen years old, and he was lost. There was something broken in him that would never be fixed, ever.
“Kiley,” he whispered. Blood dripped from his frozen lips. “Please, Kiley, please don’t hurt me.”
I licked red drops from his skin. Where my tongue touched it, the flesh turned brittle and dead. He tried to scream, but I put a hand lightly over his throat and froze that too. “I think I said that to you when you were killing me. I think that other girl tried to say it while you were choking her to death.”
His frozen lips whispered something that looked like Please.
I pressed my palm against his chest. “You broke my heart,” I said. “And now I’m breaking yours.”
Then I plunged my needle-sharp teeth into his throat and drank out his hot, salty, bitter life, and as I drank it turned cool in my mouth, cold in his veins, and his heart froze and broke inside of him.
Jamie died, quietly, with frost on his lips. It was a moment of perfection, of cold and silent peace . . . but it was broken by something strange.
I felt a jolt of warmth.
I was melting.
I looked at my fingers. They were thin now, translucent as icicles. Fading. All of me was fading.
“No,” I said. “No, not yet.” I stumbled back to the window and out, falling into the grass. I put my back to a tree and felt heat coming from the sky, a blast of intense warmth that brought only pain. The tree limbs clattered together in the wind, and icicles rained and shattered on the blacktop like breaking chimes.
The sun was coming up.
No, I did it, I drank—
I ran, fast as the winter wind; I blurred past the trees, the grass, past the empty swing where Matt had been sitting. I ran through the empty streets and over the blacktop. Impossibly, the carnival’s lights were still on, its music still blaring, and ahead, ahead was the ditch, and the horizon was pink now, pink and soft and ready to burst with morning . . .
The Cold Girl rose up out of the ditch and gave me her death-sweet smile. “Is it better now?” she asked. I could hear my own unvoiced scream in there now, distinct as a bell. “Is it?”
“You said—” I was struggling to breathe now, and I felt sick and faint with remembered pain. “You said if I drank I’d stay with you!”
She plucked a falling icicle out of the air. It became a white rose in her hand that shattered into a million pieces, too fragile to survive. Like me.
“You have to be colder.”
“But I am!” I said. “I am cold, I want to be cold! Please!”
“Then why didn’t you take the boy who offered himself to you? You had compassion. You felt for him.”
The pain was back, aching and hot, real and horrible. I wanted to run away from it. I wanted to be winter, locked in ice. Safe.
The carnival went suddenly silent, and all the lights went out,
and I could see Madame Laida standing next to the Cold Girl now, smoking another cigarette. She gave me a bitter smile.
“Come on, kid. You want to be one of us?” she asked me. “A cheap bed in a tent, a carnival that never stops moving, looking for just the right victims? Because that’s what you are, honey. A victim. You’re just looking to trade one monster for another, and you’ll never get away from this one.”
The Cold Girl gave her a look, and Madame Laida shrugged and walked away, back toward the silent carnival.
“Your choice,” she called back to me. “But once you’re hers, it’s forever. She’s giving you a choice. Make it.”
I struggled to think. The pain was back, so intense it was like burning alive, and the sun was just bursting over the horizon, and I had no time, no time at all. . . .
“I just want to stop hurting,” I wept. “Please, let me stop hurting.”
“Ah,” the Cold Girl sighed. “Then you cannot be mine. Because we may be cold, we may be immortal, but we never stop hurting. That is our curse.”
She bent and touched her lips to mine, a kiss of ice-cold peace, and then she faded into a stinging mist of blown crystals.
In the dirt I opened my eyes and took my last conscious breath. The darkness came over me just as the sun turned the dirt pink around my head.
Turns out, the darkness was but a shadow falling over me, and then there was a shout, and sirens, and so much noise it made me tired.
WHEN I WOKE up in the hospital, I felt nothing but absolute surprise. How could I be alive?
It was Matt, the boy from English class. They told me that he’d searched all night, and at dawn he’d woken up the