Dragonsbreath

Originally published in Night Terrors, Vol. 15 by Scare Street

The woman’s head lurched forward as her SUV slowed to a jarring stop, its bumper only inches from the police car parked sideways across her lane. Half a dozen emergency vehicles crowded the street ahead of her. There were police cars. Fire trucks. An ambulance.

The woman watched with mounting horror as a pair of paramedics lifted a gurney out of the ambulance and began wheeling it up the driveway of a nearby house.

Her house.

“Oh my God,” the woman breathed. “Lila!”

She threw her car door open and leaped from the driver’s seat, ignoring the urgent chime warning her that the engine was still running. Darting across the road, she pushed her way through a crowd of onlookers and ducked under a strip of yellow police tape.

“Ma’am!” The police officer manning the perimeter of the scene reached for her. “You can’t—”

“That’s my house!” she yelled as she twisted away from his grip.

The place looked like it had been hit by a missile. A large portion of the front wall had caved out onto the lawn, spilling charred beams and scorched pink insulation from the collapsing attic like innards erupting through an exit wound.

The woman sprinted to the front porch and vaulted up the steps two at a time. Shards of broken glass crunched under her feet as she rushed into the house.

A thin veil of smoke hung in the air. In front of the couch, a man in a black windbreaker squatted next to a sheet-draped form. The back of his jacket was emblazoned with large white block letters: CORONER. The woman’s stomach dropped.

“Lila! Oh, no, no, no…” She rushed over to the body, fell to her knees, and reached for the sheet.

The coroner’s hand shot out and grabbed her wrist. “Don’t.”

“She’s my daughter!” The woman wrenched her wrist from the man’s grasp then yanked the sheet back. What she saw punched the air from her lungs. She recoiled in horror. Her hands flew to her face, fingers trembling. A tortured wail rose in her throat.

It was her daughter, her angel, her Lila. Her precious, beautiful, perfect baby girl.

Dead.

The lower half of the teen’s face was destroyed. Most of the skin had been burnt away, revealing scorched muscle and bone underneath. The burns extended down into the darkness of her mouth then emerged through a smoking cavity in the middle of her chest. Her ribs were splayed outward as if something had exploded them from the inside. Smoke drifted lazily upward from the hole where her heart used to be.

The woman felt numb, senseless, confused. The sounds in the room began to fade, becoming muffled and far away. Her vision grew soft around the edges. Through the fog, she was dimly aware of the coroner drawing the sheet back over her daughter’s ruined face.

“Sorry,” the woman said vaguely.

A hand rested on her shoulder, steadying her. A man’s voice spoke. “Ma’am? Are you the mother?”

She nodded, never taking her eyes off her daughter’s lifeless body.

“Do you recognize this?”

The hand held a large plastic evidence bag in front of her face. Inside was a black fabric mask. It resembled a ski mask made from a thick fireproof material with ovals of dark tempered glass protecting each eye.

The woman’s heart kicked in her chest. She had seen the mask before, on a boy at her daughter’s school. As far as she knew, Lila had never spoken to the kid. He was an outcast, always wearing that creepy mask wherever he went. The woman assumed he had been disfigured somehow, but she didn’t know for sure. She had never seen his face. But she knew his name.

The woman’s lips moved in an inaudible whisper. The officer holding the evidence bag leaned in closer.

“What was that?” He looked at the coroner. “What’d she say?”

The coroner shrugged.

“Ash,” the woman said again, louder this time. “His name is Ash.”

#

Ashton Gale had been sweeping for what felt like hours. The bleachers were an endless sea of stale popcorn, broken peanut shells, and crumpled churro wrappers. A tacky mixture of spilled soda and dissolved cotton candy seemed to coat every surface.

The job wasn’t what he had in mind when he signed up. He imagined he’d be out on the midway, manning one of the game booths. Or spinning cotton candy. Or collecting tickets on the Ferris wheel. Instead, he was basically a janitor.

It was working out okay, though. The job paid less than minimum wage, but his employers paid in cash, let him eat for free, and gave him a tiny run-down trailer in which to live. That was more than enough for him. All he cared about was that he had escaped his shit-heel town sight unseen, and that he wasn’t out on the street begging for change. Or in jail. The rest was gravy.

As Ash swept, a pair of crumpled beer cans flew through the air and clattered onto the bleachers in front of him.

“Incoming!” a voice shouted from above.

Peals of raucous laughter echoed down from a trio of rowdy carnival barkers hanging out at the top of the bleachers, a foam cooler full of cheap beers between them. They were shit-faced as usual, fresh off another night of convincing stupid people to play rigged games for worthless prizes.

“Hey, Lecter!” a barker named Higgins slurred. “Trash those for me, will ya?”

Ash picked up the crushed cans, dropped them into his trash basket, then continued sweeping. A few seconds later, another crumpled beer can whizzed through the air. It collided painfully with the side of Ash’s head, dinging his ear through his mask.

“Duck!” Higgins yelled after the fact.

Ash threw down the handle of his broom in frustration. “Dude! What the hell?” He pressed his hand against his ear to dull the pain. “What’s your problem?”

“What’s my problem?” Higgins stood up, swaying on his feet a little. “What’s my problem?” He began lumbering down the bleachers toward Ash, his heavy footfalls booming on the wide aluminum steps. “What’s your problem?”

“Some asshole won’t let me do my job. That’s my problem.”

He tried to swallow down the intense heat rising from his chest into his throat. He had dealt with guys like Higgins before. It never ended well. He couldn’t let himself get too heated, or he would end up in more trouble than he was already in. He had to calm down. Cool off. Relax.

He took a deep breath then bent down and picked up his broom. When he straightened up, he found himself nearly face-to-face with Higgins. The barker lunged at Ash, grabbing at his mask. “Take that thing off.”

Ash batted Higgins’ arm to the side. “Get away.” Another flare of searing heat swirled in his chest. He strained to choke it down.

“Little freak. What’re you hiding under there? Huh?” He reached for Ash’s mask again.

Ash dodged backward out of Higgins’ grasp. He wielded his broom defensively, holding it crosswise in front of his chest. “Don’t do this.”

As Higgins readied himself to lunge at Ash again, a hand seized his shoulder and yanked him backward.

“Higgins!” a female voice shouted. “Back off!”

Higgins spun around. Behind him was a diminutive girl of about eighteen. She was wearing an oversized gray hoodie with the Fairway Amusements logo emblazoned across the front. Her emerald-green eyes sparkled under the string lights hung overhead.

“Leave the kid alone, you old drunk,” the girl said with a smirk. She tossed Higgins a fresh can of beer. Higgins caught the beer against his chest. “One for the road.”

Higgins shot a glare at Ash then looked back at the girl. “He a friend of yours?”

“He is now.”

Higgins grunted. “All right.” He cracked the beer open and took a sip. “We cool?” he asked Ash.

“Yeah.” Ash lowered his broom back to the ground. “We’re cool.”

Higgins’ buddies stomped down the bleachers from where they had been watching the drama unfold. One of them patted Higgins’ shoulder. “C’mon, mate. Chow time.”

Higgins nodded. He drained his beer, wiped his bottom lip with his sleeve, then crumpled the can and tossed it at Ash’s feet. “Missed one.”

Ash looked down at the can. His chest burned like molten lava. He swallowed hard. He couldn’t wait to kill the guy.

Without another word, Higgins followed his friends through the exit.

“Sorry about that,” the girl said to Ash once Higgins was gone.

Ash picked up Higgins’ can and dropped it into the trash bin. “You didn’t have to do that. I could have handled him myself.”

“Meh. He’s not worth it.” She looked Ash up and down. “You’re new, huh?” She extended her hand. “I’m Esmé.”

Ash wiped his palm on his pants then shook her hand. “Ash.”

“Ash. Nice.” She nodded approvingly. “When did you join?”

“About a week ago. You?”

“Oh!” Esmé laughed. “I’m a Fairway original.”

Ash tilted his head, confused. “What’s that?”

“Carnival kid, born and raised.” She indicated the Fairway Amusements logo on the front of her hoodie. “Home sweet home.”

“Wow, so you were born here?”

“Not here here—my parents were down in Florida for the off-season—but, yeah.”

“That’s crazy. I didn’t even know ‘carnival kid’ was a thing.”

“Well, now you do.”

“Yep. Now I do.” An awkward silence fell between them. Ash began sweeping again, his eyes on the floor. He could feel the heat of Esmé’s gaze as he pushed the broom in her direction. “Excuse me.”

“Oh, sorry.” She stepped up onto the bleacher bench, placing her hand on Ash’s shoulder for balance. Her touch sent an electric jolt racing along his skin. He looked up at her. She had fair skin with a light spray of freckles across her nose. Her eyes were ringed with heavy black eyeliner. A pair of candy-apple red braids poked out from under her hood.

Esmé smiled down at Ash. From the way her eyes were darting around his face, he could tell what she was thinking. He had seen the look before.

“What do you want to know?” Ash said.

Esmé quickly averted her gaze. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to stare.”

“No, it’s okay. I’m used to it. Go ahead. Ask.”

Esmé hesitated, then spoke. “What happened?”

“Nothing. I have a condition.”

“Do… do you ever take it off?”

“It’s best if I don’t.”

Esmé nodded. She looked at the mask again then plucked a stray piece of string from the side of it. “Well, I like it. You’re like a cross between Deadpool and Darth Vader. It’s badass.”

Ash was speechless. Nobody had ever complimented him on the mask before. Some people stared. Some laughed. Some tried to ignore it. But badass? That was a first.

“Hell,” Esmé continued. “I’d wear one if I could. It’d be like my secret identity.”

“Nah, you definitely shouldn’t.”

“No? Why not?” She cocked an eyebrow.

“Because…” He paused. He wanted to compliment her, to tell her she was too pretty to cover her face, but he knew that, no matter how he said it, it would come out completely desperate and weird. “You’d be really hot,” he said instead.

“Wow, thanks.” Esmé laughed. “I’m flattered.”

“Inside the mask, I mean.”

“Ah. Right.”

“Anyway.” Ash lifted his broom, desperate to extricate himself from the awkward mess he had created. “I better get back to work.”

“Oh, yeah, sure. Don’t let me stop you.” Esmé walked along the bleacher bench like it was a balance beam then jumped down onto the stairs. “See you around?”

Ash smiled under his mask.

“Definitely.”

#

“Hey, Vic!” Esmé bounded up to the antique carousel and leaned on the battered metal fence that surrounded the empty attraction. “Can you run it for us one time before you go?”

The elderly man in the faded Fairway Amusements polo smiled, his weathered face crinkling around the eyes. “All right, Spark. But no music, okay? It’s past quiet hours.”

Esmé clapped her hands and squealed gleefully. “Thank you!” She tugged on Ash’s sleeve. “Come on, hop on.”

Ash followed Esmé through the gate and onto the carousel. “Did he just call you Spark?”

Esmé rolled her eyes. “Yeah. That’s his pet name for me, since I was a kid.”

“Why?”

“Because I light up his life. Duh.”

Ash snorted out a laugh. Esmé moved along the rows of wooden horses until she found the one she was looking for: a black steed with a fiery red mane. “Ah, there she is. My spirit animal.” She dug her toe into one of the metal stirrups attached to the horse’s side then swung her leg up and over the saddle. “Giddy up.”

Ash grabbed the tarnished brass pole that speared the horse next to Esmé’s. The metal was cool and slick with condensation. He pulled himself onto the horse and settled into the saddle. “Spark should be your superhero name.”

“Ugh, no way. Sounds more like a Care Bear or something.” Esmé changed her voice to a peppy, enthusiastic squeal. “C’mon, kids! Let’s all use our imaginations!” Ash laughed. Esmé switched back to her normal voice. “Nah, screw that. If I’m gonna be in a comic book, I’m gonna be a supervillain like Selene.”

“Selene?”

“From Dark X-Men?” she asked. Ash shook his head. “The Black Queen of the Hellfire Club? She’s like Jean Grey, but in bondage gear.”

“Badass.”

“Exactly.” She leaned off her horse to look at Vic. “All right, Vic! Start her up!”

Vic punched the button to start the ride. The carousel lurched then began to pick up speed. Without the calliope music blaring, the ride was a cacophony of turning gears and hissing pistons playing over the low rumble of the engine that powered the ride.

Ash raised his voice above the racket. “So, you know everyone around here, huh?”

“Pretty much, yeah. I mean, sometimes new people come and go, but most have been around forever. Vic’s been with us for like fifty years. Right, Vic?” she yelled as the carousel swung past the old man. He raised his head and waved. She laughed. “He has no idea what I just said.”

“Is there anyone else our age? Other carnival kids?” Ash asked.

“Used to be. Not anymore.”

“They left?”

“You could say that. There was a fire. In the Haunted Castle.”

“Oh shit. I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, it was a bad time.”

Ash thought for a moment. The incident sounded familiar, like something he had seen on the news as a kid. He could picture the flames raging from the windows of the faux-stone turrets of the castle and the face of the giant fiberglass demon over the front entrance melting in the heat.

“Where did that happen?” he asked.

“Greensville.”

“Yes! Right. I thought so. I grew up right by there. I vaguely remember hearing about it when I was little. My mom would never let me go to the carnival anymore after that.”

“And yet here you are.”

“Yeah. Ironic, I guess.”

Esmé lapsed into silence. Ash stole a glance at her. Her hoodie had fallen backward onto her shoulders, revealing her vivid red braids. The loose baby curls around the edge of her hairline danced in the breeze. The golden glow of the carousel lights made her face seem luminescent, as if she was lit from within. Ash felt a familiar pull in his chest.

God, she’s beautiful.

Every night for the last three weeks, Esmé had shown up outside the big top toward the end of Ash’s shift. At first, their conversations were awkward. Ash wasn’t sure why she was hanging around or what she wanted from him. But after a few days, the awkwardness began to dissipate. They started to talk more freely, to laugh more easily.

Esmé was hilarious: irreverent, clever, and brash. She was also brilliant. She had been homeschooled—more like self-educated—so she seemed to know everything about everything. She was like a walking Wikipedia. Plus, she had read every comic book he had read—and more. She knew every hero, every villain, every origin story. Ash never got tired of talking to her. He was spellbound.

“Why are you here?” Esmé asked.

The question caught Ash off guard. He blinked, coming back to the present. “Hmm? Here? You asked me—”

“No, I mean with Fairway. Why did you join?”

“I needed a job.”

“Yeah, but… the carnival? Why not, like, Starbucks or something?”

“I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. I needed to get away.”

“From what?”

Ash didn’t answer. He hadn’t talked with anyone about the incident. The memory was still too fresh. Too painful. He wanted to block it out, to forget all about it. If he didn’t, he was afraid he’d lose his mind.

What happened to Lila was… God, it was awful. And it was all his fault. He had been weak. He let his guard down even though he knew how risky it was and what the consequences might be. He just wanted so badly to believe that it would be okay, that he could be normal.

But he was wrong. And Lila had paid the price.

“Forget it,” Esmé said, noticing Ash’s hesitation. “You don’t have to say.”

The churning of the carousel’s machinery began to wind down. The attraction started to slow. Vic waved his hand as the carousel rounded the curve where he stood. “All right, kiddos! Time’s up.”

“One second!” Esmé chirped. She swung her leg over her horse’s saddle and climbed off. “Come on,” she said, beckoning for Ash to follow her. “Real quick. I want to show you something.”

Esmé walked along the inside edge of the carousel, in the opposite direction of its rotation. Ash slid off his horse and followed.

The center of the carousel was stationary, like a wide octagonal pillar around which the platform turned. Each of the pillar’s panels was painted with an intricate old-fashioned carnival scene, with roaring elephants, mustachioed strongmen, and balloon-wielding clowns. Above each painting was a large mirror that reflected the carousel’s glimmering lights. It made the ride seem infinitely bigger than it was.

As the carousel slowed to a stop, Esmé jumped down into the space between the platform and the center pillar. She stepped up to the painting of the elephants and slipped her hand into the narrow gap between the panels. There was a solid click of a latch opening. The elephant panel swung inward. It was a hidden door.

Esmé stepped through. “Watch your head.” Ash ducked his head under the low-hanging doorframe as he entered. Esmé closed the door behind them.

Once inside, Ash stood up straight. “Whoa,” he said, his voice full of wonder.

The inside of the pillar was hollow, forming a small hidden room in the center of the carousel. Most of the space was taken up by the ride’s motor and gearbox along with a sound system with several large speakers. Most interesting to Ash, however, were the mirrors: he could see straight through them, to the carousel horses on the other side. They weren’t mirrors after all. At least, not from the inside.

Ash turned around slowly, looking out through the one-way mirrors in all directions. As he came full circle, he found himself almost face-to-face with Esmé. “Sorry,” he mumbled. He tried to take a step back, but his heel knocked into the speaker box directly behind him. There was nowhere for him to go.

“It’s okay. I don’t bite.”

Ash pretended not to hear her loaded comment. “I had no idea this place was here.”

“Yeah, most people don’t.” Esmé leaned back on the speaker box behind her. “I used to sneak in here every night when I was younger. I’d sit for hours and just watch the world spinning around me.” She gazed out through the mirror beside her. The carousel lights glinting through the tinted glass flickered across her face like firelight. “There were so many kids out there, laughing, having fun, having friends.” She looked back at Ash. “I just wanted to be one of them, you know? Doing dumb shit. Living in a house, going to school, hanging out with other kids my age.” She looked out through the mirror again. Her eyes had a glassy, faraway look. “I used to try to make friends with them, but…” She trailed off.

Esmé stood and stepped closer to Ash. She was nearly toe-to-toe with him in the tiny space, so close that he could feel the heat radiating off her skin. She didn’t say anything.

Ash laughed nervously. “What?”

“Hug?” She extended her arms to her sides.

“Oh. Sure.” Ash awkwardly wrapped his arms around Esmé. She hugged him back. He could smell the warm vanilla scent of her shampoo through his mask. Her face felt warm against his chest.

After a few seconds, Esmé loosened her embrace. She kept her hands around his waist and looked up at him, her eyes sparkling. “Nobody can see us in here, you know.”

Ash felt his pulse begin to accelerate. The hidden room suddenly felt impossibly small,  claustrophobic, as if a sudden fire had sucked all the oxygen out of the place. Heat waves distorted the air, threatening to suffocate him.

“Yeah. We should go. Vic’s probably wondering where we went.” He fumbled for the doorknob.

“Right,” Esmé said, disappointed. She dropped her hands from his waist. The heat began to dissipate. As Ash unlatched the door, Esmé stuck her foot out and blocked it from opening. She put her hand on his arm. “You know you can trust me, right?”

“Yeah, sure. I know.”

“Whatever your condition is, I don’t care. You don’t have to hide from me.”

“I’m not hiding from you,” Ash insisted. He opened the door. “I’m protecting you.”

He ducked out, hoisted himself up onto the carousel platform, then began weaving his way between the rows of wooden horses. Esmé called after him.

“Protecting me? From what?”

But Ash was already gone.

#

Ash walked quickly across the carnival grounds. He made his way along an orange plastic storm fence then turned left into the dark alley between two 18-wheelers. The fastest way back to his trailer was to cut through the parking area where the carnival’s vehicles were staged: a maze of flatbeds, box trucks, and recreational vehicles of every shape and size.

As he navigated the maze, he heard loud voices and raucous laughter. He recognized the sound. It was Higgins and his crew of sycophants, the same guys who had harassed him the night he first met Esmé.

“Hey, Lecter!” Higgins bellowed when he spotted Ash. “C’mere for a second.”

Higgins and his friends were sitting on the edge of a flatbed, passing a bottle of whiskey back and forth between them. A kerosene camping lantern cast a dull white glow in the dusty air. Ash had learned the names of the other two barkers since their last encounter. There was Orsi, a short, fat Italian with thinning hair slicked back across his sunburned scalp and Freed, an ex-con with ice-blue eyes and a tattoo of a flaming skull on his neck.

Ash quickened his pace. Higgins swiped the whiskey bottle from Orsi then jumped down from the flatbed. His boots kicked up puffs of dust as he landed in front of Ash.

“I was wondering when I was going to see you again,” Higgins said. “Come and have a drink with us.” He took a swig from the whiskey bottle then held it out to Ash. “Consider it a peace offering.”

“Thanks,” Ash mumbled. “But I’m good.”

Behind Ash, Orsi and Freed jumped down to the ground.

“It isn’t polite to turn down a drink from a friend.” Higgins took an unsteady step closer to Ash. His speech was slurred. “We’re still friends, right?”

“Sure.” Ash looked over his shoulder. Orsi and Freed were close behind him. With the long flatbed trucks to his left and his right, Ash had no place to run. He was trapped. “I’m just not up for it right now. Long night.”

Higgins nodded understandingly. “Girl trouble?” He held up a finger to Orsi and Freed. “Give us a minute.” Then he slung his arm around Ash’s shoulder and started walking with him. “Talk to me,” he said, his voice lowered. “What’s the problem? She’s not putting out?”

“It’s not like that,” Ash said through gritted teeth. He twisted out from under Higgins’ grip. Higgins let him go. “Man,” Ash said, shaking his head in disbelief. “You are such a piece of shit.”

He tried to walk past Higgins. Higgins shot his arm out across Ash’s chest then pushed him backward. “Hang on. That’s no way to talk to a friend.”

“Then I guess we’re not friends anymore.”

“No? That’s too bad.” Higgins shot a look over Ash’s shoulder. Orsi and Freed lunged at Ash from behind. Each of them grabbed one of his arms. Ash struggled to pull away, but they were too strong. They twisted his arms painfully behind his back.

Higgins stepped up to Ash then threw a punch directly into Ash’s stomach. Ash doubled over, gasping for air. Orsi and Freed pulled him upright. His head hung down as he tried to catch his breath.

“That’s for your smart mouth, friend,” Higgins said. “Now…” He reached up, grabbed the top of Ash’s mask, and pulled. The mask stretched then slipped off. Higgins tossed it aside. “Let’s see what we’ve got here.”

Ash’s chin sagged down to his chest. His dark brown hair hung down over his face. “Give it back,” he whispered weakly.

Higgins grabbed a fistful of Ash’s hair and pulled his head up so he could see the teen’s face. His disappointment was palpable.

Ash was a normal-looking kid—good-looking, even. There was no disfigurement. No scarring. Nothing worth covering up at all.

“Well, shit,” Higgins complained. “Look at Johnny Depp here. Why’re you hiding that pretty face, boy?”

“I have a condition.” Ash’s lips curled back from his teeth in an angry sneer. His voice sounded deeper, more guttural, as if his throat was full of hot coals.

Higgins didn’t seem to notice the difference. “If you say so.” He motioned to his friends. “Let him go.”

Orsi and Freed released Ash’s arms. Ash pulled away, rotated his sore shoulders, then walked over to where Higgins had dropped his mask. As he bent down to pick it up, Higgins planted his foot on Ash’s backside and pushed, sending him stumbling forward.

Ash fell to his hands and knees. A bright flash of flame ignited underneath him with a whoosh, like lighter fluid being splashed on a grill. The flames lit up the night with a blinding white flare of light.

Higgins jumped backward. “Whoa! What the hell?”

“I tried to warn you,” Ash said as he climbed to his feet. He raised his head to look at Higgins. His irises were glowing like cinders in a campfire.

Before Higgins could react, a bluish-yellow jet of flame erupted from Ash’s mouth and engulfed Higgins in a torrent of liquid fire. Higgins’ clothes and hair were vaporized almost instantly. Higgins opened his mouth to scream. Instead of air, he drew in a lungful of super-heated gas, incinerating the delicate tissues in his mouth and throat. His lungs seized, trapping the searing heat inside his chest. Oily black smoke poured from his throat. No sound escaped his lips.

Like a flood of napalm from a flamethrower, the blaze gushing from Ash’s mouth consumed Higgins completely. His body became a twisted black silhouette, a ghoul writhing grotesquely in a white-hot pillar of fire. His flesh began to bubble and melt, stretching and blackening over his bones like burnt taffy. Steam hissed from his eyeballs as they ruptured in the heat then sunk back into his skull. The acrid stench of burnt skin poisoned the air.

Orsi and Freed stood paralyzed, watching Higgins’ immolation in numb horror. Higgins stumbled blindly toward them, his expression frozen in a rictus of agony. Just as he reached them, his lifeless body crumpled into a smoldering heap at their feet.

Ash snapped his mouth shut, cutting off the jet of flames. He glared at the two terrified men, his eyes pulsing with an ember-orange glow.

A flood of urine spread across Orsi’s pants. “P-Please. D-don’t.”

Ash pulled the mask over his head. The heat waves dissipated.

“You tell anyone, and I’ll find you. Understand?” Orsi and Freed both nodded. “Then go,” Ash said.

The two men ran, disappearing into the shadows between the 18-wheelers.

Once they were gone, Ash slumped against the flatbed then sat on the ground and drew his knees to his chest. His head hung heavy on his neck. He felt weak, drained, as if every ounce of energy had been spilled from his body.

A crunch of dry grass made him look up. His stomach twisted into a knot.

Esmé was standing over him.

“Hey,” she said quietly.

“Hey.” Ash’s voice felt thick and raw in his throat. “You saw.” He could tell from her face that she had.

“Yeah. You okay?”

“No.” He struggled to his feet and dusted off his jeans. “I better go.”

“Where?”

Ash looked down the row of trucks at the empty carnival grounds. Lights from a distant highway traced a line across the darkened rural landscape. “I don’t know.”

“Then stay.”

“I can’t. Someone’ll find him.”

“So what? Let them.” Esmé bent down and picked up Higgins’ whiskey bottle. She began pouring the caramel-colored liquid onto his smoking corpse.

“What are you doing?”

“Such a terrible accident.” Esmé sighed with mock remorse. She emptied the bottle onto the ground next to Higgins then dropped it on the dirt by his hand. “He really should’ve been more careful.”

Ash watched as Esmé grabbed the camping lantern that was still glowing on the flatbed truck nearby. She tossed the lantern underhand, landing it next to Higgins’ body. Its glass shattered. Fresh flames whooshed up as the glowing wick ignited the spilled alcohol. The fire sped along the ground then up and over Higgins’ body.

“You don’t understand. It’s only a matter of time before someone else gets hurt. Before you get hurt.”

“You won’t hurt me.”

“Not on purpose, no. But that’s the problem. I can’t help it. The only thing keeping you safe right now is this stupid mask. If I take it off…” He backed away from her. “I’m sorry.”

He started walking in the direction of the highway in the distance. He would hitch a ride. Find a new job. Start over someplace else—alone. Again.

Esmé spoke from behind him. “I know what happened, Ash. To your friend.”

Ash froze in his tracks. He turned around. “How?”

“The police. A few days after you joined. They were looking for you.”

“What did you tell them?”

“Nothing. But they… they had pictures.”

Ash closed his eyes, suddenly overwhelmed with a flood of images from that night. Lila, on the couch, removing his mask. Leaning in, eyes closed, lips parted. The soft brush of her mouth against his. The beating of his heart. The burning in his chest. Then, the flames. Raging past his lips, down her throat, through her ribs, an explosion of liquid fire tearing her open from the inside. Her body tumbling off the couch, sprawling on the floor, eyes wide, face ruined. Dead.

“I wasn’t sure if you were who I thought you were,” Esmé continued. “But I knew I had to find out.”

“She was my friend.” Ash exhaled a shuddering breath. He felt nauseous. “She wanted me to feel normal, just for a second. And it killed her. I killed her.”

“But you’re not normal. You’re special. You have a gift. A beautiful, wonderful gift.”

“Yeah. Great gift. Thanks, Dad.” His voice dripped with sarcasm.

“You just need to learn to control it. If you can harness it, use it to your advantage… you’ll be unstoppable. We’ll be unstoppable.”

“Don’t you think I’ve tried?” The desperation in Ash’s voice was plain. “You think I want to wear this thing for the rest of my life?” He tugged at his mask. “It’s the only way.”

Esmé reached into her back pocket and pulled out a colorful slip of paper, about half the size of a postcard. “Stay. Just one more night.”

“Why? What’s the point?”

“Trust me.” She handed the paper to Ash. “There’s something you should see.”

#

The midway was awash in light and sound. Squeals of glee accompanied the rumble of the rollercoaster as it roared around a bend and into a towering loop. The music from the carousel blared over loudspeakers, while barkers implored passersby to test their luck at games of skill and chance. The tantalizing aroma of hot kettle corn and fresh roasted peanuts wafted through the air.

Ash weaved his way through the chaos, past the Mirror Maze and the Giant Slide, to the sideshow tent behind the big top. He looked down at the slip of paper Esmé had handed him the night before.

It was a ticket.

The Amazing Esmeralda, it read. Death-Defying Feats of Wonder. 8:00 PM.

Ash hadn’t realized Esmé was a performer. He had just assumed she was with the carnival because her parents were there. She never said otherwise, and he never thought to ask.

Ash passed the ticket to the girl at the gate then entered the sideshow tent. There were no bleachers inside, just folding chairs set up on a carpet of bright green Astroturf. The front of the tent housed a small black stage between stacks of loudspeakers. At the back of the stage was a large banner featuring the same Amazing Esmeralda logo as on the ticket.

Ash dropped into his seat. The lights dimmed. The crowd grew silent. Dramatic music began to thrum through the loudspeakers followed by the booming voice of an announcer.

“And now! Ladies and gentlemen! Prepare yourselves for the most death-defying feats of wonder your eyes have ever seen! I give you Fairway Amusements’ brightest new act! The hottest talent under the sun! Behold! The Amazing! Esmeralda!”

A massive gush of flame erupted out of the darkness, directly at the audience. The crowd screamed with surprise and delight. The flames quickly dissipated, replaced by a pair of whirling, spinning wheels of fire that rotated around each other like the rings of orbiting planets. Sparks ricocheted off the stage. The rings changed size, each alternately growing and shrinking and growing again. The crowd ooh’d and aah’d with appreciation.

Finally, bright red spotlights faded in from above, illuminating the performer at the center of the stage: Esmé. She froze in a dramatic pose, holding her flaming torches aloft. Her red hair was twisted into a tight bun. Irregular red and black stripes were painted diagonally across her face. Her sleeveless black bodysuit and knee-high boots reminded Ash of something that would be worn by a comic book hero. Or a villain. She looked fearsome. Dangerous. Wild.

“Badass,” Ash whispered to himself.

Esmé placed the torches into black metal stands on either side of her then touched the flame of each torch with a fingertip. Fire raced across her upturned palms and along the tops of her bare arms to her shoulders. With her arms held out at her sides, the flames looked like feathers on the wings of a phoenix.

Suddenly, the stands holding the torches seemed to collapse, each tipping inward toward Esmé. The torches hit the stage at her feet, igniting a column of flame that consumed her body, from her feet to her neck. The crowd cried out in surprise. Esmé raised her arms toward the ceiling as if summoning the fire higher. Then she clapped her hands over her head. The flames raced up her body, along her arms, and into her hands, leaving her body undamaged and unharmed.

Esmé held her hands cupped over her head then brought them forward in front of her. A small, bright flame danced in her palms. She blew on the flame, sending a torrent of fire from her lips into the air. Then she inhaled, drawing the fire back into her mouth.

The lights dimmed almost to black. Esmé opened her mouth. A brilliant yellow glow emanated from her throat. The fire appeared to still be burning, deep inside her body. Esmé tipped her head back and spat a bloom of fire into the air. The flames formed the shape of a dragon in the air over her head. The beast flapped its blazing wings, flew out over the heads of the audience, then disintegrated into a shower of sparks.

The crowd leaped to their feet, giving Esmé a standing ovation. As Ash stood and clapped, Esmé’s words from the night before came flooding back to him.

“You just need to learn to control it,” he heard her say. “If you can harness it, use it to your advantage… you’ll be unstoppable. We’ll be unstoppable.”

We’ll be unstoppable, Ash thought again.

We.

#

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Ash asked.

He and Esmé walked through the shadows between the 18-wheelers, passing the circle of burnt grass where Higgins’ body had been recovered earlier that morning. Remnants of yellow police tape trailed along the ground and flapped in the breeze. The police hadn’t asked too many questions. It was just a freak accident as far as they were concerned. An open-and-shut case.

“How’s that conversation supposed to go, exactly?” Esmé said, arching an eyebrow.

“But you knew about me. You must have.”

“I thought maybe I did, yeah. But I couldn’t be sure. Lucky for me, Higgins outed you before I had to figure out how to bring it up.”

“How did you know, though? Because of the mask?”

Esmé stopped and looked up at Ash. “You don’t remember me, do you?”

“From where?”

“The carousel. You were eight, maybe nine years old. I saw you riding alone. I asked if I could ride with you.”

A blurry image flickered at the edge of Ash’s consciousness, just out of reach. He remembered… something. But he wasn’t sure exactly what.

Esmé continued. “I snuck you on all the rides. The Ferris wheel. The Tilt-A-Whirl.” She paused. “The Haunted Castle.”

Ash’s eyes widened under his mask. He remembered. “That was you,” he whispered. Esmé nodded. “Those kids. They were so mean to you. I… I got so angry.”

“We both did.”

The heavy veil Ash had cast over the memory began to lift. That night was the first time he had become aware of his powers. The first time he had lost control. The first time someone had gotten hurt. The first time someone died.

Somehow, he had escaped from the inferno unharmed. His mother found him wandering through the stampeding crowd, his face smeared with soot. She asked if he was okay. He said he wasn’t feeling well. His chest hurt. His throat burned.

His mother’s face had gone sheet white. She warned him never to tell anyone what happened. Then she hustled him past the arriving fire engines and out to the car, never to return.

A few days later, his mother had given him the mask for the first time. It was the same kind his father had worn before he died. “You’ll need to wear this from now on,” she had said.

“For how long?”

She didn’t have an answer.

Ash walked with Esmé in silence, too overwhelmed with the force of the memory to speak for a bit. They arrived at Esmé’s trailer. As Esmé fished for her keys in her backpack, Ash stared at his reflection in the darkened window. His mask stared back at him.

Esmé found her keys and unlocked her trailer door. She turned back to Ash. “Now what?” she asked quietly.

Ash looked at his reflection again. He reached up and slipped the mask off his head, then leaned forward, took Esmé’s face in his hands, and kissed her softly on the lips. Waves of heat distortion rippled around them.

After a few seconds, Ash pulled away. He opened his eyes. Esmé smiled at him then tilted her head back and exhaled a column of fire into the air. The flames morphed into a giant dragon several times larger than the one from her show. The creature hovered overhead for a moment then flapped its wings and soared away into the starless night sky.

“You’ve gotta teach me how to do that,” Ash said as he watched the dragon disappear into the distance.

“Tomorrow.”

She kissed him again, then took him by the hand and led him into her trailer. As Ash passed through the door, he let the mask slip from his fingers and onto the ground outside.