Nora tugged her gloves down further over her freckled wrists. Every other couple in line had linked arms, but John Reidy had not so much as inched his elbow towards her. She wasn’t sure what pained her more: the ache in her hands screaming that this parish carnival sideshow hid more magic than most or her inept suitor. The line could not move fast enough.
But nothing about this show was fast. Patrons shuffled between intricate, though fraudulent, displays: palm-sized peacocks with visible clockwork, chicken-sized dragon eggs wiggling as a hidden steam boiler hissed, monkeys that might as well have still had their old organ-grinder parts attached. Nora struggled not to roll her eyes. Dull, boring, badly engineered. And not a true cryptid to be seen. Everyone else had sighed, pointed, marveled. Only John Reidy seemed as disappointed as Nora. He’d polished his glasses, refolded his handkerchief in his pale fingers, and said “hmm,” three times.
Nora wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or insulted.
She told herself the parish grandmas would be too distracted by the fact that Nora Sullivan—“the strange one”—was spending the afternoon with a young man to remark on how badly it was going. Her parents had been relieved, too agog at the polish on his two-seater motorbike to comment on the outfit Nora had chosen. Any other day they’d have looked at her knickers, tweed jacket, and cloche atop her plain brown bob and sent her back upstairs to find anything else. But John Reidy was a nice young man from a nice family. That seemed enough.
It mattered little to Nora that they’d never spoken more than cursory “hellos” before he’d extended the invitation to take in the sideshow. She’d needed an excuse to visit the fair, and he was as good a one as any.
And now she was—by her fingers’ tingling—very close to knowing just what magical creatures were trapped in the shadows.
Nora’s heart skipped a beat as she stepped into next room’s pulsing, phosphorescent glow.
She craned her head around the couple in front. The first pedestal bore a tall, cylindrical tank in which independently luminescent bubbles slid past each other in every direction. Their plaque read “Comb Jellyfish.” She had never seen a jellyfish before, and she could feel that these were real: the ache coalesced beneath her nail beds. Her hands flexed in discomfort. They pulsed with magic and light, but they were behind glass: she could not rescue them if she could not touch them.
The second pedestal supported a small, square corral. The corners descended into puddles, and the middle lifted into a small hill. It was all bounded by a laughable picket fence. The label claimed they were “Sea Snails.” How humiliating.
Even if the gastropods hadn’t been avoiding the water, any patron should have known they were anything but sea snails. They glowed and flashed in every color possible, calling coded messages across the arid expanse to which they were confined. Could no one sense their fear? Their loneliness as they trudged against gravity and friction toward each other for comfort? If only she could help the jellies, too. No cryptid should be bound in malice for mere ticket sales.
Nora stepped around the line of patrons toward the snails. John—to her surprise and annoyance—said nothing to waylay her.
A woman behind Nora tisked.
“Some people are too rude to understand that a line offers order in a public setting,” the woman said to the man whose arm she held. Nora stepped back to let them have a turn, sinking into the shadows for moment until the couple moved off.
Her fingers burned. She wished she could glow a reassuring message, but her fawn skin did nothing but freckle. And if it was to be done, she did not have much longer to do it.
In the shadow of the room, she removed her right glove and balled it into her opposite fist. She glanced over to John, but he had his back to her, still entranced with the jellies and tugging at his sleeve.
She stepped up to the pedestal.
With her bare hand, Nora stroked each snail’s back and said its true taxonomic name. Their colors sped up, happy, hopeful, elated.
She opened the corral gate. A snap sounded as a switch maintaining an electromagnetic field was thrown. The true gate was open.
“Be free,” she whispered.
The snails grew and bulged, their shells filling to palm size. They extended fringes and tendrils along their feet, rippling and reaching upwards. They lifted off the pedestal one at a time, clasping at air currents too faint for Nora to feel. Their shells became ballast as they ballooned toward the door and liberty.
Someone gasped. Nora turned around, chin held high, ready to face an accusing crowd.
But no one had seen her yet. John Reidy—yes, John Reidy—was chanting and working a willow wand against the glass pillar around the jellyfish. No, now the glass was behind the jellyfish. They, too, floated upward, drifting slowly toward escape.
Nora must have been agape, because John stepped up to her with a confident smile and flushed cheeks.
“It appears we have something in common,” he said, voice low. The room was dimming as its light sources escaped while the crowd behind them looked on.
Someone outside the room shouted the alarm. Nora grabbed John’s free hand with hers. Their magic fizzed beneath their skin.
She smiled. “I’m ever so glad you drive a motorbike.”