Luke kept the new kid by his side. It was hard to navigate during the day, the bright carnival lights were off and the sunlight was a milky-grey. The boy was shaking, clinging tightly to the pipe as if it was his key home. The desperation that every kid felt when they first fell into the Underneath always hit Luke hard. Even after years of seeing other kids die, seeing the shock on their faces when they realized this wasn’t a dream, he couldn’t stop hurting for them. He relived his own trials with each new kid he saved. And that was probably the worst blow of all.
Luke shook the thoughts out of his head, tried to focus on getting everyone to home camp safe and sound. One dead monster did not make the Underneath safe. It made things worse. They had left a mutilated corpse, pincers stripped and bones removed, in the centre of the monsters’ world. The rescue and excitement of victory announced their presence. They lacked weapons and tools to fight with. If a group of monsters found them, they were dead.
Luke just wanted to get this group of kids back to home camp. Home camp would have safety that the carnival lacked. Their scent would be hidden there. Close to the looming rock walls around the carnival, they were safe. The kids falling from the holes in the wall every night was enough of a cover for their home camp.
The boy stumbled, bile crusted on his chin. Blood leaked from the wounds on his back and legs. Luke was surprised that the little carrot headed boy was still walking. It was a good sign, Luke decided, that the boy was. Especially after everything he had been through. Usually, Luke had to carry new kids to home camp. It was a shock, falling into this world, almost being killed, and then having a band of children run to the rescue. Luke didn’t understand it, he fell and there was no one to rescue him. He rescued himself.
The fear from those first nights washed over Luke, memories swift to steal his breath. But he beat down his fears, clutched the monster claw blade in his hand. He had been alive here for years. He was not going to die. Not tonight, not until he saw his parents again.
The other kids moved in silence, slipping between the rotted shacks and faded tarps like shadows. The faded fabrics of their pajamas, worn for too many days and nights and years, only helped them blend. Luke was proud of his little army, but his pride made little difference to the monsters. If one of them caught their scent . . . Luke shuddered at the thought.
The kid at Luke’s side, his name was Peter but Greenie stuck to him after he puked at the sight of the dead monster, stumbled. Luke was quick to grasp his forearm to keep him on his feet.
“You okay there, Greenie?” Luke allowed himself a good look at the kid’s face. He hadn’t looked earlier, in case Greenie died on the way to home camp. Luke didn’t want another dead man’s face in his nightmares.
Red hair was matter thickly around Greenie’s face, each strand stained with blood, sweat, and dirt. His eyes were glazed, more black than brown. Each eye was much too wide and Greenie’s breath flew through his open mouth. Luke swallowed thickly. Fear coiled in his belly.
“Greenie?” A few of the other kids gathered, a frayed circle around Luke and Greenie.
Luke pressed his palms onto Greenie’s shoulders, trying to grab the kid’s attention. He could feel each muscle twitch against his hands. Greenie’s body was full of energy. The kid’s hands clenched and loosened, his breath shook his core.
Greenie collapsed like a broken spring. The pipe rolled from his hands, dark blood staining the dusty ground black.
It wasn’t as shocking of a sight as it should have been. Another kid collected the pipe, Luke picked Greenie up, cradled him like a small toddler against his chest. The other kids melted towards Luke, keeping pace with him as he jogged. Most of the children were tall enough to reach his navel. It wouldn’t be long till they were back at home camp. Tilly would look over Greenie and fix him.
Luke wasn’t going to let another kid die. He broke out into a run. His feet ate up the dirt. Some of the kids shouted and hollered, leaping over and under the ramshackle stalls and darting across the rusted tracks of roller coasters. A few tripped, arms quickly grabbed by others as their cries filled the air. It was times like these that Luke believed they could climb their way out of the Underneath. He could taste freedom on the tip of his tongue. He almost believed that his band of ragged kids had a chance.
Twilight marked the sky as they scrambled up the rocky path to home camp. Luke panted, he hadn’t run this far in a long time. The lights of the carnival sparkled below home camp, the rocky ledge hiding them during the day gave them sheltered view of the carnival below. Disgust twisted in his gut and he turned his face away from the shrieks of laughter, distant music, and whirl of cars across impossibly high tracks. He’d seen enough horrors to know when the Underneath lied. The idea of enjoying the carnival sickened him more than Greenie’s blood on his skin.
The rest of his band scampered ahead, trophies from their successful hunt held high. Each rattling pincer and sticky bone reminded Luke that they had a chance, that they were killing monsters and making a difference. It was a slow war, but they were winning small battles each day.
Luke continued through the throngs of children, heads taller and years older than each of them. The only one near his age was Tilly. She carefully counted each sunrise and sunset, knowing the days and weeks and months of the real world while Luke had long ago forgotten. She told him he was seventeen. She told him she was fourteen. He didn’t think it mattered much if she was right or wrong.
Each time he left home camp, he knew Tilly would duck inside her tent and refuse to come out. Tilly never left home camp, even though only the days were dangerous she had a special hiding place for when Luke left and she would spend the day hidden away. Though he admired that she took care of the youngest kids, her fear made him sick. There wasn’t a reason for it and hiding wasn’t going to help anyone. She needed to fight with him, like the rest of them.
He scoffed. Kicked dust with his bare foot.
An older child, maybe eleven or twelve, scampered into Tilly’s tent. Often the older kids would bring her sweets they found in the carnival. Her stomach grew fat and her fingers had started to look like sausages. Big ones. Ones his dad used to cook for Sunday breakfast before they went to church.
He liked her anyways. Even though she was a coward, she was kind and had a very pretty face. Luke liked the freckles that burst across her nose like stars and her mousy hair always brushed her rounded cheeks in little, messy tangles. Whenever he thought about her like this, his stomach clenched and his heart beat went all funny. Often, he was quick to banish the thoughts from his head.
Luke ducked inside her tent. Each tent in home camp had been ‘borrowed’ from the carnival, the fabric torn and stained but it provided enough for the band of malnourished and rambunctious kids. They took what they needed from the carnival below. Well…they even took what they didn’t need. No one else was going to use it, and even if they were using it . . . they were usually dead by morning.
Luke could feel each of Greenie’s laboured breaths against his neck.
Tilly was bent in the corner, arranging stolen cloth in the shape of a lumpy bed. The littlest of the children would come here and sleep the day away, safe in Tilly’s tent. She would tell them stories of life back home, how their parents would love them and welcome them with open arms. Luke was the hero in her stories, the boy who would find a way back through the holes in the rock walls and take them home. She would tell them stories of his monster slaying, tell them stories about how he had killed a hundred monsters on his own and would kill a hundred more. Tilly told stories about how each child was going to grow up just like him, strong and brave and handsome and skilled enough to kill a monster. And Luke would lead the army forward, they would slay the monsters and find the key home.
Luke had stopped believing her stories when hair started to sprout on his chin.
But he kept fighting. There was nothing for him but the burn of foul blood on his skin. He couldn’t remember his father’s face or mother’s laugh anymore. It was all he had. The smaller kids needed something to believe in, so Tilly gave them stories of Luke the Underslayer and Luke gave them monster claws and bones.
Seeing Tilly always made Luke think of terrible things. He shook his head, switching to better memories.
When he found Tilly, small and crying while curled underneath the shelves of a shack, she had told him that she would love him forever because he saved her. She told him that she was eight years old and wanted to go back home with her mom. By then, he had forgotten how many children he’d seen die. But, somehow, she didn’t. She cowered and hid and moaned and cried, but still she didn’t die. Luke admired that part about her at least. Her ability to live, meekness and all, struck a chord in him. One he hadn’t felt since his mother tucked him in at night and told him stories of brave knights and terrifying dragons and God’s love for His children.
She looked up from the bedding as the flap fell back into place. Her eyes bulged, cheeks round and stomach curved outwards. Her eyes were bright green, sharp against her pale skin. Luke’s stomach twisted.
“I-is that blood?” Tilly squeaked, her hands scrambled for the midnight pocket she’s sown onto her faded pink pajamas. She pulled out the lens from a pair of glasses and held the cracked glass to her eye. With another squeak and a jolt, the lens hit the dusty ground. She scrambled to find it.
“Yes’m.” Greenie was still breathing. If he was still breathing now, he would probably be breathing tomorrow. Luke placed him down on the closest padding he could find. He flinched as his hands scraped the oozing wounds. Tilly couldn’t find her glass, so Luke it up with a quick hand. He pressed it into her palm.
“Can you fix it?” Luke brushed a strand of oiled hair behind his ear and flicked his gaze away from her. If she couldn’t…
“What?” Her eyes always bulged when she was frightened. Luke thought she would cut her hand from hos tightly she held the glass. Her hair was frayed at the edges, knotted and tangled from hundreds of nights spent sleeping on the ground. Tilly often looked like a frightened and terrified mouse. Luke thought it was cute.
“Greenie. Can you fix it?” He chewed on the inside of his cheek, crossed his arms over his chest and planted his feet. Luke had always been the better of the two when it came to hiding nerves. He had spent too long in the Underneath and nerves or fear were a weakness he couldn’t afford.
“No! No I can’t fix it. I mean, I can’t fix him! He’s going to…to die i-in my tent!”
In a second, he had a hand around her collar. He yanked her towards him with a snap of weak fibres. “Then think of something!” He’d pulled her too close to his face. Luke could see each smudged freckle on her nose, the quiver in her lip. “I’m not letting him die, not after killing a monster for his bedwetting pants!”
He let her go, the tears in her eyes and the whimpers snapping him out of his sudden fit. “Tilly, I –“
“The Coaster Witch.”
“Take him to the Coaster Witch.” Tilly wiped her eyes with the heels of her hand, clutched her glass tightly in the other, “She lives under the tallest coaster and her magic is strong enough to destroy the Underneath. But she doesn’t ‘cause she likes to see little kids suffer.”
Spit struck the ground, “And what makes you think she’s going to help Greenie if she wants us to suffer? Don’t make much sense to me, Tilly.”
“Matilda. My name’s Matilda and it’s never been Tilly.” Red flushed her rounded cheeks and the crest of her chest. Luke’s back straightened. She only corrected him like that when she was really mad. “And if you’ve got a better idea, you bug-headed Underslayer, than you do that instead!” She slammed her bare heel into the ground, “So stop pushing me around, okay?”
He sagged a bit, hair curtaining his face from view. Luke didn’t meet her eyes. She hadn’t called him the Underslayer in years, they had both agreed that it was a story for the little ones. They were the grown-ups here. They got the grown up names, like Luke and Tilly, not kiddie names. His fist tightened slightly, “…’orry.”
“You better be, you stupid bug-head.”
Again, Luke knelt and cradled Greenie against his chest. He felt the warmth slipping from the boy’s body like a blanket that had been out of the dryer too long. But Greenie was breathing. That’s what mattered. Luke slipped under the flap of the tent, feeling safe in the night. There wasn’t much to fear in the night, besides the oddity tent. The younger kids would often run to the carnival and play with the games and rides before sunrise reared its ugly head.
Luke was too old for that escape now. He was the grown-up.