Twenty-five years ago…
The heat rippling over the surface of Charity Marlow’s blacktop driveway was one hundred twelve degrees. It was nearly one hundred nine in the shade from the scrub brush that passed for trees in her front yard.
She sat on a white iron bench in her backyard, picking at the paint flaking off the arm scrolls. A glass of sweet tea stood on the empty plant stand to her right, thinner on top, where the ice cubes melted, thicker on bottom, where the sugar settled.
Inside, the baby was crying.
She’d been going for close to three hours this time, and Charity’s arms ached from holding her. Her head throbbed and her feet were sore from standing. From pacing and rocking in place. Her throat was raw from crooning, her nerves shot from exhaustion, and her patience long worn thin.
She’d decided to go inside again when the last ice cube had melted into her tea, and not a minute later.
Not a minute earlier either, even though the top of her head felt close to combusting from the heat of the sun.
She stared at the cracked earth beneath her feet, at the hands in her lap, watching her own fingers shake from exhaustion. Then she stared at her tea as the ice cubes shrank before her eyes, and still the baby screamed.
Then, the last ice cube melted.
Despair swallowed Charity like the whale swallowed Jonah, but she held no hope of being spit back out. Her arms felt like they were made of iron as she lifted her tea.
She closed her eyes while the top of her skull burned in the blazing sunlight. “Lord,” she whispered, condensation dripping over her fingers from the outside of her cold glass, “won’t you take this angry child and give me a quieter, happier one in her place?”
As soon as she’d said the words, she regretted them. Words spoken in pain and exhaustion are rarely meant, and Charity Marlow’s were no exception.
But there was no taking them back.
The moment the last word fell from her lips, the baby stopped crying.
Setting her glass down, she listened harder but heard only silence.
She stood and rounded the bench, headed for the kitchen door. By the time she got to the house, she was running. The screen door slammed behind her and her sandals slapped the floor, competing with the thunder of her own heartbeat in her ears as she raced down the hall.
She stopped in the nursery threshold, one hand clenched around the glossy white door frame, breathing too fast. Too hard. Her chest felt like it was constricting around her heart, as if her ribs were laced up too tight.
“I didn’t mean it. Please, I didn’t mean it.”
The baby was dead. Charity was sure of it. She’d committed the worst sin a mother could commit, and now she was being punished.
But there was no answer from above, so she had to take that next step forward. And the one after that.
By her third step into the nursery, she could see a chubby little fist propped against the pastel crib bumper. Anguish swelled up from her heart and caught in her throat, a lump she couldn’t breathe through, yet couldn’t swallow.
One more step, and she could see the whole crib and the baby lying in it, eyes peacefully closed.
Charity sobbed and sagged against the crib rail, one hand on her daughter’s round little stomach.
The child’s eyes fluttered open, and Charity’s shocked gasp was like a crack of thunder in the silent house. Her eyes filled with tears of joy and relief and she reached to pick up the child, already scolding herself for being such a superstitious fool.
Then the child smiled at her and Charity froze, her fingers inches from her daughter’s pale pink jumper. Chills raced up her spine and goose bumps erupted all over her body.
The child laughed—surely no purer sound of joy was ever heard—and she stepped back from the crib, fear crawling beneath her skin.
The baby laughed again, and she took another step back, then another, and another, until her back hit the pale yellow wall. In that moment, as confusion, guilt and fear met within her, calling into question everything she’d thought she understood about the world and her place in it, Charity Marlow knew only one thing for sure.
That was not her baby.
Fourteen years ago…
The whistling tones of a calliope organ rang out from a speaker mounted over the carnival gate, the playful notes tripping up and down the musical register with a spirited energy. The kids from Franklin Elementary buzzed with anticipation, whispering excitedly to one another as they fidgeted in two semistraight lines. The music seemed to feed their enthusiasm and fray their patience.
As she approached the gate, ten-year-old Delilah Marlow clutched her brown-bag lunch and stared at the graceful form in front of her. The woman handing out tickets wore a red sequined leotard with a black feathered hat, black stockings, and shiny black slippers. Her lips were painted bright red. Her blue eyes practically glowed beneath dramatic sparkly lashes and thin dark eyebrows that ended in a jewel-studded curlicue at each of her temples.
She was the most glamorous thing Delilah had ever seen.
“Here you go, sweetheart.” The costumed woman handed her a shiny slip of red paper. Delilah’s gaze lingered on the sequins and feathers as the woman handed tickets to each of the other five fifth graders in the group, and to Mrs. Essig, their young homeroom teacher. “You all enjoy your visit, and remember to look but not touch. Especially you!” She patted the brown spikes sticking up all over Matt Fuqua’s head. “With that hair, you might just be mistaken for a werewolf pup!”
The other three boys laughed and elbowed Matt, but fell into a sudden awed silence as another woman in red sequins passed by—walking on her black-gloved hands. Her tiny waist was bent backward at a severe angle, so that both of her bare feet dangled over her head, her toes nearly touching the top of her skull.
Delilah couldn’t stop staring.
Shelley Wells linked her arm with Delilah’s as they stepped through the gate and into the carnival. “How does she do that?”
“She’s a circus freak.” Matt marched past the girls as if he owned the whole midway. “My dad says some of them are just as weird as the monsters they got in cages.”
Mrs. Essig hurried to catch up with him, shooting an apologetic glance at the red-sequined woman. “They’re human,” she whispered fiercely as she grabbed the back of Matt’s shirt to keep him from wandering down an offshoot of the main path on his own. “That’s all that matters.”
Matt pulled free of his teacher’s grip. “Are we sure they’re human? My dad says sometimes you can’t tell just from lookin’. Remember the reaping?”
Mrs. Essig nodded stiffly, but Delilah knew their teacher didn’t actually remember the reaping, and neither did Matt Fuqua. Only old people actually remembered the reaping, and most of them didn’t like to talk about it, because they’d all known someone who’d died. Or killed. Or been taken.
Remember the reaping? wasn’t just a question. It was something parents said in hushed voices. Something priests advised while they made the sign of the cross. Something politicians shouted from behind podiums. Remember the reaping was a warning not to let history repeat itself. A reminder for humanity not to let its guard down.
Remember the reaping was an American way of life.
The teacher rubbed her forehead and pinched the bridge of her nose. Delilah recognized both gestures. Mrs. Essig was getting another headache.
Matt shrugged, oblivious to his teacher’s discomfort. “My dad says you have to be careful who you trust, because the reaping could happen again.”
According to Delilah’s father, Matt Fuqua was just smart enough to be dangerous. Others who’d warranted the same description included congressmen from the wrong side of the aisle and that eight-year-old from Memphis who’d figured out how to put his mother’s car into Neutral before he realized he couldn’t reach the brake.
Just smart enough to be dangerous, it turned out, wasn’t really very smart at all.
For the next hour, Delilah and her classmates wandered along the crowded sawdust-strewn midway, clutching their lunches and staring in awe at every vibrant spectacle they passed. They didn’t have access to the entire menagerie. The owner had generously offered a complimentary midway “preview” for all of the local schools, with the hope that curious parents would later attend the whole carnival at full price. But what they did see was enough to impress even the most jaded fifth grader.
Along with the tantalizing scent of the food carts and the game booths boasting all the bells and whistles, costumed circus performers gave abbreviated demonstrations to cheering children and stunned teachers. A man in a red velvet jacket and dramatic black eyeliner swallowed a series of swords on a small dais, while Delilah rubbed her throat in empathy. Five acrobats in red-and-black sequined leotards formed an inverted pyramid, their bodies bent and twisted into complicated shapes. And set back from the midway, behind velvet ropes to hold the audience at a distance, a man and woman in matching top hats and shiny red-and-black costumes juggled lit torches and breathed fire into the air.
Everywhere the children turned, a new spectacle awaited, each more extravagant than the last. But the real draw was a series of stunning hand-carved and brightly painted circus wagons that had been hauled out to line the midway. Each wheeled cage displayed a different cryptid the children had only ever seen on television, the internet, or in books. Handlers in black slacks and bright red shirts stood by, ready to answer questions or prod creatures into displaying their bizarre and sometimes unsettling features.
The first wheeled cage held a brownie, a small gnomelike creature with a long nose and pointed ears, which Matt labeled “boring” and Shelley pronounced “cute.” Another held a cockatrice—a miniature dragon with dark, unsettling eyes that stared up at them from its rooster-like head. The creature had scales that glittered with each elegant movement of its long whip of a tail. Its sharp talons clicked against the metal floor of the cage, and Delilah stumbled backward when it opened its curved beak and let out a terrible crow.
The exhibit most popular with the boys, other than the woman who could twist her body until she was standing on her own skull, was a dog with three heads, each growling and snapping at the other two. As they watched, a woman in a sparkly red bustier and black skirt tossed a bloody hunk of meat into the cage with an artistic flourish. The boys in the audience cheered as each third of the dog fought viciously over the single dinner all three mouths had to share.
All Delilah could think was that the dog must have been awfully hungry to keep stealing food from itself.
While the rest of the group remained spellbound by the savage snapping dog, Delilah wandered toward the next wagon, where a cluster of kids from another school had gathered. She had to push her way to the front of the whispering, pointing crowd, and her first glimpse of the creature in the cage stole her breath. It was like nothing she had ever seen. Or rather, it was like several things Delilah had seen, but never in such a seemingly random compilation of mismatched parts.
The cryptid was the size and general shape of a lion, its body covered in smooth golden fur ending with a long, slim, tufted tail. Each of her four paws was wider than Delilah’s whole hand, but even more incredible was the huge pair of eagle-like wings growing from the creature’s back, its feathers fading from dark golden brown at the base to nearly white at the tips. Yet what really caused the commotion was the fact that the creature’s front feline paws grew up into deeply tanned human arms and shoulders, which supported an equally human neck and a human head with long, dark hair.
From the biceps up, the creature in the cage looked like a normal woman.
Mesmerized, Delilah glanced at the plaque wired to the front of the wagon. Sphinx, it read. The cryptid was a forty-three-year-old sphinx named Hecuba, who’d been taken from her mother’s nest on a Greek mountainside just weeks after she was born.
Delilah tried to imagine the creature in her natural habitat. Flying across the Greek countryside on huge powerful wings. Swooping to catch a goat or lamb in her razor-sharp claws, then taking the prize up to a massive nest on the side of a mountain. That would have been incredible to see.
Could Hecuba remember any of that life? Delilah couldn’t remember anything from when she was only a few weeks old.
The sphinx turned in her tight quarters, ready to pace several steps to the other end of her cage, but when her gaze met Delilah’s, Hecuba froze. Her eyes were gold and round like a cat’s, and the left one peeked at the child through a curtain of dark hair. But no cat had ever looked at Delilah like Hecuba was looking at her. No bird had either.
The sphinx glared at her the way her mother did in church, when Delilah kept clicking the ballpoint pen but couldn’t be scolded during the prayer.
The sphinx was looking at Delilah as if she wanted to say something.
Hecuba blinked, then continued pacing, but every time she turned toward the fascinated child, their gazes locked and Delilah’s curiosity was piqued again.
“Can we ask her questions?” she asked the sphinx’s handler, a large man in jeans whose thick arms were crossed over a simple red employee T-shirt. There were no top hats or sequins for handlers assigned to the most dangerous cryptids—nothing that could distract from the safety regulations.
“Questions?” The handler frowned down at her, as if he found her request very odd. “You can ask anything you want, but don’t expect an answer. She don’t talk. Even if she could, it’d probably be nonsense. Having a human head don’t mean she has a human brain.”
Delilah decided to give it a try anyway, because what other kind of brain could be inside a human head? She stepped closer to the cage, but stopped when the handler stuck one arm out to keep her at a safe distance. “Hecuba?” she said, and the sphinx stilled when she heard her name. “Do you remember Greece?”
The sphinx blinked, then narrowed her eyes at the child. A human tongue peeked from between her dry lips to wet them, and Delilah’s pulse quickened. Hecuba was going to answer. She, Delilah Marlow, was going to be the first person in history to carry on a conversation with a sphinx!
“Ha!” Someone shoved Delilah’s shoulder, and she stumbled to the left. When she turned, she found Matt Fuqua leering at her. “Did you really think it was going to answer you?” Matt and his friends laughed at Delilah while her cheeks burned.
Mrs. Essig quietly rounded up her group and announced that it was time to eat their bagged lunches.
As they headed down the midway toward the petting zoo, which boasted a picnic area and hand-washing station, the parade of performers and exhibits continued. Matt stepped into the path of an acrobat doing backflips down the sawdust-strewn path, and if Mrs. Essig hadn’t pulled him out of the way, he would have wound up tangled in a knot of bendy limbs and sequins.
Shelley whispered into Delilah’s ear that Mrs. Essig should have let him go. Death by circus acrobat would have been the most interesting thing ever to happen to him.
The petting zoo was a fenced-off area at the end of the midway. Inside, a series of small open-air pens had been arranged across from a collection of long folding picnic tables. Mrs. Essig claimed the end of one table for her six field-trip charges and shooed them toward a hand-washing station at one end of the exhibit.
Delilah dropped her lunch bag on the chair she’d claimed, then followed Shelley toward the boxy plastic sink and soap dispensers. While the boys splashed each other and used more paper towels than they actually required, Delilah and Shelley wandered slowly past the enclosures, oohing and aahing over the young beasts on display.
Instead of the usual collection of lambs, piglets, and newborn bunnies, the menagerie’s petting zoo held werewolf puppies, a centaur foal who pranced around her pen with hair the color of wheat flying out behind her, and the most adorable little bundle of white fur identified by the sign hanging from its pen as an infant yeti.
There was also a young giant—a three-foot-tall toddler wearing a folded tablecloth as a diaper. The giant’s forehead protruded grotesquely and his legs were knobby and twisted. After a second of staring at him, Delilah decided that the huge toddler was much more scared of the taunting children than they were of him.
Shelley’s favorites were the werewolf pups. The plaque hanging from their pen said that they were five years old and had been born right there in the menagerie. They had a baby sister, according to the petting zoo’s “nanny”—a woman in black overalls and a stained red apron. But the infant was still too young to be separated from her mother, so Shelley and Delilah would have to come back with their parents to see the full display at night, if they wanted a glimpse at the only baby werewolf in the menagerie.
At the last pen before the hand-washing station, Matt and his friends had gathered, wet fingers still dripping, and were shouting to be heard over one another as they stared into the pen. “What’s going on?” Shelley said, elbowing her way through the small throng of boys with Delilah at her side.
“There’s no sign, so we’re taking bets about what’s in the pen,” Matt explained. “I’ve got a homemade fudge brownie up for grabs, from my lunch, and Elías is throwing in a candy bar.”
Delilah peered into the pen and discovered the source of the mystery. Three forms sat at the back in a semicircle, facing away from the crowd. The one on the left was the smallest and the one on the right was the largest, but all three wore what seemed to be threadbare nightgowns. Without their faces visible, their species was a total mystery.
“I say they’re cyclopses,” Matt declared.
Delilah shook her head. “Cyclopses are giants.”
“Actually, there’s a pygmy species native to a small island near Greece.” Neal Grundidge pulled a used tissue from his pocket and swiped at his runny nose. “They’re people-sized.”
“They could be satyrs,” Elías said. “We can’t see their feet from here.”
“Hey!” Matt shouted, gripping the pen with both hands. “Hey, turn around! We paid for freaks, so show us some freaks!”
“This field trip is free,” Shelley reminded him, but Matt only wedged one sneakered foot into the pen and climbed up a foot.
“Get down!” Delilah whispered fiercely, as the nanny started toward them with clenched fists and narrowed eyes. “You’re going to get us all in trouble.”
“We’re not leaving until you turn around, freaks!” Matt shouted, propelling himself another foot up the six-foot fence.
The creatures on the right and left of the semicircle hunched even closer to the center, but the one in the middle slowly began to turn.
Delilah held her breath, and Matt dropped onto the ground but clutched the fence with both hands. All six of the classmates watched, spellbound, as the form in the middle stood on human legs and feet and turned to face them. Long dark hair hung over her face, obscuring the source of her monstrosity, and silence fell over the fifth graders as they waited, frozen.
Finally the girl in the dress lifted one human-looking hand and pushed her hair back to reveal…
A perfectly normal-looking little girl.
“Awww!” Neal frowned. “She looks like my little sister.”
“What is she?” Elías asked, as the nanny approached.
“She’s not a she, she’s an it,” Matt insisted, backing solemnly away from the pen. “That’s the most dangerous kind of freak. The kind that looks like us. She must be a surrogate.”
“Are those her sisters?” Neal asked. “Surrogates don’t have brothers and sisters.”
“She’s an oracle,” the nanny said. “All three of them are. Right now they mostly find lost things and guess your middle name, but someday, they’ll be able to see the future.”
“You think they’ll see another reaping?” Shelley whispered.
Delilah hardly heard her best friend’s question. When her classmates had bored of the normal-looking freak and moved on to eat their lunch, Delilah stood alone in front of the pen, staring at the child oracle, who stared right back at her through haunting golden-brown eyes. The girl was a couple of years younger than Delilah, and a lot skinnier. Her nightgown was stained. Her hair was tangled and dirty, her bare feet caked in mud. There was no food in the oracles’ pen, nor any furniture at all.
When Delilah finally turned away from the girl on the other side of the fence, bothered by something she couldn’t quite put into words, she could feel the oracle watching as she walked all the way back to her table and sat with her friends. That unseen gaze followed her as she pulled a sandwich from her brown bag and stared at it, suffering a sudden loss of appetite.
Finally, as she opened her carton of milk, Delilah’s grim tangle of thoughts cleared enough for one to shine through. If that girl was a monster, anyone could be a monster. That’s why the world was so terrified of another reaping. Because just like last time, humanity would never see it coming.
But if monsters could look like humans, and humans could look like monsters, how could anyone ever really be sure that the right people stood on the outside of all those cages?