(Finalist for the 2018 Hugo Awards, Best Short Story)
(Finalist for the 2017 Nebula Awards, Short Story)
One night, when I was winding down to sleep, I asked Papa, “How come I don’t get the same number of turns every day?”
“Sometimes the maker turns your key more, and sometimes less, but you can never have more than your mainspring will hold. You’re lucky, Zee, you have a good mainspring.” He sounded a little wistful when he said it. He never got as many turns as I did, and he used most of them to do boring grown-up things.
“Take me to the zoo tomorrow?” The zoo on the far side of the closet had lions that did backflips and elephants that balanced on brightly colored balls.
“I have to take Granny and Gramps to the mechanic to clean the rust off their gears.”
Papa never had any turns to spare for outings and adventures, which was sad. I opened my mouth to say so, but the whir of my gears slowed to where I could hear each click, and I closed my mouth so it wouldn’t hang open while I slept.
What Papa said was true. I have a good mainspring. Sometimes I got thirty turns, and sometimes forty-six. Today, on this glorious summer day, I got fifty-two. I’d never met anyone else whose spring could hold so many turns as that, and I was bursting with energy.
Papa didn’t notice how wound up I was. “Granny has a tune-up this morning, and Gramps is getting a new mustache. If you untangle the thread for me, you can use the rest of your turns to play.”
“Always work first, so you don’t run out of turns.” His legs were stiff and he swayed as he walked along the wide wood plank that led out from our closet. He crossed the train tracks and disappeared into the shadow of the maker’s workbench. Tonight, when he came back from his errands, he’d bring a scrap of fabric or a bit of thread. Papa sewed our clothes from whatever scraps the maker dropped.
The whir of his gears faded into silence, and I tried to untangle the thread. It was a tedious chore. The delicate motion of picking up a single brightly-colored strand was difficult on a tight spring. A train came clacking along the track, and with it the lively music of the carnival. Papa had settled down here in Closet City, but Mama was a carnie. Based on the stories Papa told, sneaking out to the carnival would be a good adventure. Clearly I was meant to go—the carnival had arrived on a day when I had more turns than I’d ever had before. I gathered up my prettiest buttons and skipped over to the brightly painted train cars.
It was early, and the carnival had just arrived, but a crowd had already formed. Everyone clicked and whirred as they hurried to see the show. The carnies were busy too, unfolding train cars into platforms and putting up rides and games and ropes for the acrobats.
I passed a booth selling scented gear oil and another filled with ornate keys. I wondered if the maker could wind as well with those as with the simple silver one that protruded from my back. A face-painter with an extra pair of arms was painting two different customers at once, touching up the faded paint of their facial features and adding festive swirls of green and blue and purple. “Two kinds of paint,” the painter called to me, “the swirls will wash right off with soap.”
It was meant to be a reassurance, but it backfired—the trip from the closet to the bathroom took seven turns each way, so soap was hard to come by. Papa would be angry if I came home painted.
“Catch two matching fish and win a prize!” a carnie called. He was an odd assemblage of parts, with one small brown arm and one bulky white one. His legs were slightly different lengths, and his ceramic face was crisscrossed with scratch marks. He held out a long pole with a tiny net on the end, a net barely big enough to hold a single fish.
“Don’t they all match?” I leaned over the tub of water to study the orange fish. They buzzed quietly and some mechanism propelled them forward and sent out streams of bubbles behind them.
The man dipped the net into the water and caught one of the fish. He flipped open a panel on its belly, and revealed a number—four. “The fish are numbered one through ten, and you’ll get to pick three. Any two of ‘em match and you win!”
I eyed the prizes—an assortment of miniature animals, mostly cats, all with tiny golden keys. Keys so small that even I could turn them, so there’d be no need to wait each night for the maker to wind them up.
“Take these buttons in trade?”
The man laughed. “No, but if you didn’t buy any tickets I’ll let you work for a play—a turn for a turn, as they say.”
Unlike Papa, he could see how tight I was wound, and he put me to work hauling boxes from his platform to a car on the far end of the train. The work was satisfying, and it let me gawk at the rest of the carnival. When I was done, he handed me the net. “Any three fish that catch your fancy. Good luck!”
The net was long and hard to handle, but I dipped it into the water. It came up empty and dripping. Fishing was not as easy as the man had made it look. I tried again, and this time brought up a fish that whirred loudly as it came out of the water. The man pushed in a pin to stop the gears and flipped open a panel to reveal the number 8.
My next two fish were numbered 3 and 4.
“Do any of them match?” I handed back the net, frowning and studying the pool. There were easily a hundred fish. “I guess with so many they must.”
“You have to look closer at the fish.” A freckle-faced kid climbed up onto the platform. He scooped up a fish, checked the number on the bottom, then studied the pond. “This one’s a six, so I just have to find a match.”
With a smooth practiced motion he dipped the net back in, and pulled out another fish. He showed me the number on the bottom—another six.
“How did you—”
“One of the 6s has a busted tail, swims in circles.”
“But the other one, what if you’d gotten something else?”
“This one has a chip of paint missing.”
“Endivale,” he said, but added quickly, “You can call me Vale. Hey Pops, okay if I take my free turns to show Zee around?”
The man running the fish game studied us for a minute, then nodded.
Vale took my hand. “Come on, you gotta hear the nightingale sing, she’s amazing.”
So off we went. The nightingale turned out to be a woman with brown-feathered wings that matched her dark skin. Vale wasn’t lying. She sang beautifully, any song that the crowd shouted to her.
For twelve turns we explored the carnival—we watched the acrobats, and lost the ring-toss game, and rode on the backs of the dancing bears. Then Vale had to stop, because he didn’t have so many turns as me.
“You seem to know everyone at the carnival,” I said, when we sat down on the edge of an empty platform. “Do you know my mother? She’s very distinctive—a woman with eight spider legs.”
“Oh, I’ve heard of her—Lady Arachna, right? She’s Carnival Four.”
Vale gestured down at the platform below us. “You can’t see it with the platforms folded down, but the train cars are numbered so they stay matched up. All the cars in this train are marked nine, so we’re Carnival Nine. Pops and I are here because they had an empty platform for him to run his game. My other dad is at Carnival Two because he’s an acrobat, and nine already has more acrobats than we really need.”
“So you never see him?”
“There’s only one track through here, but the trains run the whole house, with cities along the route where we stop and entertain folks. Some places there are clusters of tracks where the trains pass each other, or turn around. I’ve seen him a couple times.”
We talked a bit more, and he snuck me in to see the bearded lady and a snake man whose skin was covered in iridescent green scales. The carnival was amazing, and I never wanted to leave, but I could feel the tension leaving my spring. I only had a few turns left, barely enough to get home. “I have to go.”
“I’m almost out of turns anyway.”
I hopped down from the platform. Vale put his hand on my shoulder. “I lied about some of the fish looking different. There’s no missing paint or broken tails. The fish have more than one number, depending on which way you open the panels. Don’t tell Pops I told you.”
Something passed between us then, in that moment where he trusted me. Somehow it meant more than all the marvels I’d seen. It didn’t even occur to me to get angry that the game was rigged until I was more than halfway home.
“You didn’t untangle the thread,” Papa said when I came in.
The multicolored jumble of thread was on the table where I’d left it.
“I had so much energy, and the train brought the carnival—”
“Go to bed, Zee. We’re out of turns.”
I spent my days untangling threads and learned to sew scraps of fabric into clothes. On my 200th day, Papa took me into town and we swapped out my child-sized limbs for adult ones, and repainted my face. Trains came and went, but I never had enough extra turns to visit the carnival. Then one morning Papa came back from the city early, pulling a wheeled cart. “What happened?”
“Granny and Gramps wound all the way down.”
“But the maker can wind them again tonight, and—”
Papa shook his head. “No, there comes a time when our bodies cannot hold the turns. We all get our thousand days, give or take a few. Then we wind down for the last time. It is the way of things.”
I knew we didn’t go on forever, because some of my friends were made of parts from the Closet City recycling center. The recycling center melted down old parts to make new ones. So, I knew. But at the same time I’d never known anyone who was broken down for parts before. Granny had painted my face and Gramps always told the best stories about the maker.
“I wish I could have visited them before they wound down.”
“I didn’t know they’d go today. They were only in their early 900s.”
“Are you going to take them to the recycling center?”
He shook his head. “The recycling center is well stocked, but the carnivals are often hurting for parts. When the next train comes, we’ll take them there.”
I knew it wasn’t right to be excited on the day that Granny and Gramps died, but while I waited to wind down and sleep, I couldn’t help but imagine all the marvels we would see.
The next train turned out to be number nine. I was a little disappointed because I’d already seen most of Carnival Nine, but then I remembered Vale and how he’d shared the secret trick with the fish. I didn’t see him as I followed Papa to the platform at the front of the train, or while we laid Granny and Gramps out on the red-painted wood. One of the carnival mechanics knelt next to Granny, and Papa leaned over and whispered, “I’m going to stay to watch them disassembled, but you don’t have to. You did your turns helping me pull the cart to get them here.”
The mechanic peeled away the fabric that covered Granny’s torso and unscrewed her metal chest plate. I wanted to remember her whole, not in tiny pieces. I squeezed Papa’s hand, then let go and walked along the length of the carnival.
Vale found me about halfway down the train. He had swapped out his childhood limbs too, and when they repainted his face they’d gotten rid of his freckles. His hair was darker now, which suited him. He put his hand on my shoulder. “Sorry about your grandparents.”
“How did you—”
He shrugged. “Pops saw you come in. He said I could have some turns off, if you want to watch the acrobats.”
There was a mischievous gleam in his eyes when he said it, and it sounded like a grand adventure. Vale took me to a huge green-and-white striped tent next to the train tracks and we held hands and watched as acrobats walked tightropes and leapt between swings suspended high above the ground.
I loved the show, but halfway through Vale stopped watching.
“Seen this show too many times?” I asked.
“No. Well, yeah, but mostly it reminds me of my dad. Pops is great, but we don’t always get along so well. He wants me to take over the fish someday, but I hate that the whole thing is a cheat.”
I wouldn’t have minded staying for the rest of the show, but I didn’t want him to be sad. We snuck out and headed back to the train. “Can you switch carnivals?”
“I’m not built to be an acrobat like Dad. My parts aren’t that good. Really all I’m built for is running a game, and if I’m going to do that, I might as well stay here.”
“You could leave the carnival and stay in Closet City,” I said, suddenly aware that we were still holding hands. “It’s... Well, it’s terribly boring actually.”
He laughed. It was getting late and he was nearly out of turns. “I was thinking I might come up with a different game, one that’s hard, but doesn’t involve any cheats.”
I couldn’t quite keep the disappointment off my face. I almost wished I hadn’t said anything about Closet City being boring, but it was the complete truth. “Yeah, I guess it’d be hard to give up the adventure of the carnival to stay in a place like this.”
He pulled me closer and spoke softly in my ear, “Why don’t you come with me when the carnival moves on?”
Papa could take care of himself, and I was old enough to go. I told him on our walk home, and the next morning I packed up my things and said goodbye. It was a sudden shift, an abrupt departure, but Papa understood that I had always been restless. He loved me enough to let me go. When the carnival moved on, I went with it. With Vale.
Five trains were at the grand junction when we arrived, and Vale helped me find Carnival Four so that I could look for my mother. He would have stayed, but Carnival Two was at the junction as well, and I told him to go and visit with his dad. Vale and I would have plenty of time together later, and I wanted some time alone with my mother. I hadn’t seen her since I was new.
She was easy to find, her train car clearly labeled “the amazing spider-woman,” with pictures of her painted large on the side of the car. I knocked on the door and she slid it open, staring down at me and tapping one of her forelegs. “Yes?”
My gears whirred tight in my chest. She didn’t recognize me, and why would she? My limbs were different, my face was repainted. She had left a child, and I was a woman now. “I’m Zee. I came with Carnival Nine, and I wanted... well, to see you, I guess.”
“Oh, my daughter, Zee.” Her foreleg went still, and she tilted her head, studying me. “What is it you do with Carnival Nine?”
“Vale is teaching me to run one of the games,” I admitted, knowing that it was one of the lowest jobs in the carnival. Being an acrobat or a performer required more skill, but the games were mostly con jobs. Nearly anyone could do it, with enough practice.
Mother didn’t say anything, and the silence stretched long and awkward between us.
“Papa is still in Closet City,” I told her, more to fill the silence than anything. “We lost Granny and Gramps, a few weeks back.” I tried to think of more news from Closet City, but since mother had stayed with the train she probably wouldn’t know most of the people I’d grown up with. It was a strange feeling, my strong desire to bond with someone who was a complete stranger. In my mind, the meeting had gone differently. She had loved me simply because I was her daughter, and we’d had an instant connection.
“I’m sorry to hear they’ve wound down.” She paused for a moment. “Look, I’m really not the maternal sort—it’s why Lars took you to Closet City to raise you. I’m—well—I’m not very nice. I’m selfish. I like to use my turns for myself, and I never spared a lot of turns for my relationship with Lars. Certainly I never had enough for you.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. I wanted to be angry with her, but she was a stranger, she’d never really been a part of my life. That was how things were and I was used to it. Mostly I was disappointed. Sad that my dreams about reuniting with my mother had died. We talked a little longer about nothing of importance, and then I went back to Carnival Nine, home to Vale. I vowed that I wouldn’t be like my mother. I was blessed with a lot of turns, and I would use them for more than just myself.
The train took us in slow circles, stopping to perform at the cities. I settled into the routine of carnival life—collapsing the walls of our train car to make our platform, setting up the dart game that Vale designed, packing everything away again when it was time to move along. The days blurred one into the next, obscuring the passage of time. Then one day I realized that I was over 400 days old, which meant that I had been with the carnival longer than I’d lived in Closet City.
I wasn’t old yet, but I was no longer young.
“You sure you’re ready to do this?” Vale took me to the front car where all the parts were.
I nodded. Our train’s next stop was the maker’s workbench; this was the right time for us to make our child.
He started picking through the gears, laying out everything we’d need to build a child. “My half-sister has these great pincers, like lobster claws—”
“I thought maybe he could look more like us.” Carnies came with a wide variety of parts, which was fun for shows, but the more outlandish ones all reminded me of my mother. “Hands would be more versatile if we ever settle down in a city. What if he doesn’t want to be a performer?”
Vale frowned. “He could change his parts, I suppose. But what happened to your sense of adventure?”
When I’d lived in Closet City, the carnival had been exciting for the brief time it had stayed. But being a part of the carnival—well, the obligations of life and livelihood sucked away the wonder. It was the novelty that had drawn me here, and half a lifetime later the novelty had worn away. But I couldn’t bring myself to say so to Vale.
“So if he wants pincers when he’s older, he can swap out his limbs that way too.” I kept my voice calm, but worry gnawed at me. We had agreed on building a boy, but we hadn’t talked much about the details. I rummaged through the pile until I found an arm, dark-skinned like the nightingale lady, but smaller, child-sized. It didn’t have a match, but there was another that was only slightly paler. Would anyone notice? Probably someone had already taken the other half of each set. “What about these?”
“Okay.” He was less enthusiastic now, and I felt bad that I’d shot down his first suggestion so quickly. I looked for parts that would be a compromise, interesting enough for him, but nothing as extreme as my mother’s spider legs. Nothing that would evoke memories of a woman who thought it’d be a waste of turns to raise me.
We worked quietly for a while, the silence awkward. Finally he pulled out a face, an ordinary shape but painted with streaks of black and white. He held it up. I hated it, but it was only paint. Paint could easily be removed and redone, later. It was less work than swapping out parts. The structure of the face underneath was good. I nodded. It broke the tension.
“Dad said there might be a place for us at Carnival Two, working the show with the dancing bears.” He kept his gaze firmly on our son, focusing his attention on attaching the black-and-white streaked head to the still-empty torso. “It’d be a step up from running a dart game, a better position for our son.”
Thinking about our son working a show at the carnival made me remember my own childhood. I had always wanted adventure, but now dancing bears seemed more dangerous than glamorous. Life on the tracks was harder, even for me with all my turns. Carnival folk almost never made it to a thousand days. Their springs gave out when people were in their 800s, sometimes even sooner. “I want what’s best for him.”
Vale took my hand and smiled. “Me too.”
The train took us to the maker’s bench, and we laid out our son’s body, chest open. Tonight the maker would give him a mainspring and wind him for the very first time.
“Should we name him now, or after we’ve gotten to know him?” My parents had waited to name me until my second day, because they wanted to be sure the name would fit.
“It’s good luck to name him before he goes to the maker. He’ll get a better spring that way.” Vale answered. “What about Matts? That was my grandad’s name.”
I thought about my Grandad, and all the stories he’d told about the maker. “My grandad was Ettan. What about Mattan? We could still call him Matts for short.”
Vale nodded, slowly, his spring winding down. “I like that.”
The maker gave me forty-three turns the day that I met my child. My darling Mattan got only four. Something was wrong with his mainspring. I was definitely no mechanic, but I could hear it, a strained and creaking noise like metal bending to its breaking point. What could you do with four turns? How could I teach him the world if that was all he had to work with?
I picked up my son and carried him to meet Vale. My mind churned with worry for my son’s future and guilt at having more than my share of turns, but at the same time I was grateful to be wound up enough for everything that needed to be done. I saved Mattan a turn of walking by using an extra one of mine to carry him, and he could see the world that way. Light from the ceiling reflected off the white stripes across his face, and I admired the contrast against the black. I had been too hasty in condemning Vale’s choice, it was unusual, but striking.
“This is your father, Vale,” I told Mattan. He nodded happily but made no attempt to speak. The mechanics of speech were complex and used more turns than a simple nod. Even now, newly made, he was aware of his limitations. It made sense, I suppose. I’d always been able to feel how tightly wound my spring was, even when I was young.
“Why are you carrying him?”
I showed Vale the mechanical counter above our son’s key. There were two dials of numbers, enough to show two digits, which made Mattan’s tiny number of turns seem even smaller, if such a thing was possible. “He only has four turns.”
Vale put his hand out, not to take Mattan but to rest it on my shoulder. “So few?”
“I’ll make my turns stretch to cover both of us,” I promised. “We’ll make the best of it.”
And I kept my promise. I made a sling and carried Mattan on my back as I ran my dart game and did our errands, and tried to show him some of the fun and adventure I had so desperately wanted in my childhood.
It was too much, even for me. On Mattan’s third day I wound down in the afternoon, right in the middle of my shift working the darts. Vale took Mattan home in his sling, but he didn’t have the turns to carry me to bed, so I stood there, right where I stopped, and the carnival-goers clustered around me, gawking. A grown woman, wound down in public like a child who had not learned to pace herself.
At the end of Mattan’s first week, our train was at the junction, and Mattan spoke for the first time. “I want to see the acrobats.”
Vale had gone out that morning to spend a few turns with his dad. I was supposed to repair the dartboard, covered in painted bulls-eye targets. It had cracked, and we needed it for our game, but Mattan had never asked for anything before. He’d heard Vale talking about his dad and the acrobatics he did for his show. I didn’t have the turns, but he had made the effort to ask, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him no. I carried him to Carnival Two, and we watched the acrobats practice their trapeze act.
We didn’t see Vale in the audience, and his father wasn’t practicing with the others. We sat as still as we could and watched, saving our turns for the trip back to train nine. Vale was already there when we returned. He stared at the broken dartboard. It reminded me of the day I’d left the tangled threads, and Papa had chastised me for not doing my work first.
“Mattan asked to see the acrobats,” I said. “He spoke for the first time. He’s never asked for anything, and I couldn’t tell him no.”
“Mattan doesn’t have the turns for these things,” Vale said. His voice was cold, angry. “You don’t have the turns for this either. You have to pull your weight with the carnival if you want to stay. You know that.”
“And what about our son?” I demanded. “He can’t fix dartboards or run carnival games, but that doesn’t mean he has nothing to contribute.”
Vale shook his head. “Maybe not, but he can’t pull his own weight, and he’s cost us the chance to move to Carnival Two. They might have taken us, but they refuse to take Mattan.”
It was only then I realized that for all this first week, Vale had never once called him Matts. This was not the child he wanted, and he was refusing to bond with him, trying to protect himself from the hurt. Or maybe he was simply being selfish, unwilling to use his turns on his own child. He was certainly disappointed at losing his chance to move to Carnival Two.
The train made its slow circuit from the Attic City to the brightly painted Children’s Room and down the long hallway to Closet City, and I used my turns to help Mattan get through his days. When the train stopped in the shadow of the maker’s bench—the place where I’d grown up—I left the carnival and took Mattan with me. Vale didn’t argue; he was relieved to see us go.
Papa was delighted to see me, and to meet Mattan, and he welcomed us into his home. I began to fill the role that had once been his—taking him to get his gears tuned or his paint retouched—and everywhere we went I carried Mattan. I had turns enough to care for Papa and Mattan both, so long as I did nothing else. I tried not to think of adventure, or freedom, or even the future. If I kept my focus on the present moment, I could do everything that needed to be done, but only barely.
There weren’t any trains at Closet City on Mattan’s 200th day.
“We can wait for a carnival to come, or we can get your adult-sized limbs from the recycling center,” I told Mattan. We’d talked about both options beforehand, a conversation that had spanned several days because he couldn’t always spare the turns to ask questions.
“I want to go today,” Mattan answered immediately. There was a good selection of parts at the recycling center, and he didn’t want to be a performer, so it made sense to get parts here in town... but I think Mattan also knew that getting new limbs would be an exhausting day for both of us, and he didn’t want to make it even harder by adding the long walk out to the tracks of the carnival trains.
Being at the recycling center reminded me of the day Vale and I built Mattan, although here the parts were organized neatly on shelves, not piled high in a disorganized heap on the floor of a train car. These parts were more uniform. There were no spider legs or pincers, and while the faces were painted with a wide variety of features, there were none with bright garish colors or distinctive patterns. None that looked at all like Mattan.
“I’ll hold up limbs one at a time,” I told him. “When you see something you want, nod.”
Mattan sat perfectly still, his painted-black stripes cutting across his face like harsh shadows. He had three turns today, enough for us to do everything we needed if we were careful. I moved around the room, holding up arms and legs for him to see.
The limbs he picked were neither the biggest nor the smallest, painted the same deep brown as his child-sized arms. I brought them over. Mattan’s fingers curled, a movement that mimicked the way he squeezed my shoulder when he was excited, but before I could attach the new limbs he asked, “Will these be too heavy?”
The question broke my heart. Yes, these limbs were heavy. All the added weight meant that it would take more turns to carry him. I had selfishly hoped he would choose smaller limbs, but they were his limbs, and this was his choice. “These are beautiful, and I have a lot of turns. I can still carry you.”
It was the right thing to say, and Mattan was so happy with his new limbs, but when I carried him home from the recycling center his weight stole the tension from my mainspring more quickly than before. We lived by our turns, and my son—now fully grown—couldn’t spare enough to walk across town. I was furious that the world was so unfair, and my heart broke thinking of all the things he didn’t have the turns to do. But if I was being honest, my heart also broke for me. Vale had abandoned us and Papa was old, so I would be the one to carry Mattan everywhere, always.
That thought was in my mind when Carnival Nine came to town, an ever-present weight that I could not shake away. My love was endless, but my strength was not, and I longed to escape the unrelenting effort of taking care of Papa and Mattan on my own. I wanted to see Vale, to have some turns all to myself, to do exactly as I pleased for once.
I didn’t wake Papa or Mattan. I left them in their beds—did not ask permission to go out or even explain what I was doing, simply left and walked to the trains. They wouldn’t be able to do much today, without my help, but between the two of them they’d be able to manage.
“It’s good to see you,” Vale said when I arrived. “Where’s Mattan?”
“With my father.” I didn’t know what to say after that. I’d wanted to see Vale, but what could I really talk about with someone who wouldn’t help raise his own son? He was like my mother, too selfish to share his turns. And here I was, at the carnival, wasting my turns on a foolish whim instead of taking care of my child. “I shouldn’t have come.”
Vale frowned. “I owe you an apology. I didn’t... I mean, I wasn’t prepared for how things went, and you’ve always had more turns, so it seemed to make sense for you to take him. I’ve missed you.”
“It’s been lonely. Difficult.” I admitted. Once I started, the words came pouring out. In Closet City I’d felt like there was no one I could talk to—Papa had always been so good at taking care of everyone around him, so responsible, there was no way I could complain to him. But I could pour everything out to Vale. If nothing else, at least he would understand my selfishness. “I have the turns to give Mattan a good life, but only if I never do anything for myself. I take care of Papa, I try to let Mattan see some of the world, and it is so rewarding but I want something for me, some little bit of the adventure I was always chasing as a child.”
“You’re here today,” Vale said. He took my hand. “Let’s have an adventure.”
And we did. It was like seeing the carnival for the first time, the animals and the acrobats and the games. Vale was kind and attentive and we planned out possible futures and talked about the time we’d spent apart. It would have been a beautiful day if not for the constant gnawing guilt of having left Mattan and Papa behind. The worst was that I hadn’t even told them. I had been so sure that I did not deserve time for myself that I had made things even worse by stealing the time instead of asking for it.
“This was nice,” I said, painfully aware that I needed to leave soon if I wanted to have enough turns to get back home. Despite the guilt, it had been reinvigorating to have the break. “Maybe tomorrow I could come back with Mattan? I think he would love to see you.”
Vale hesitated, then nodded. “I would like that.”
I walked home, and I was nearly out of turns by the time I walked in the door. Papa was in bed, but Mattan was up, sitting perfectly still at the table, obviously saving a turn to tell me something. I walked directly in front of him, so he wouldn’t have to turn his head.
His eyes met mine, and he said, “Grandpa never woke up today.”
It had always been Papa’s wish to have his body taken to a carnival when he wound all the way down, so I rented a cart and pulled him to the train, all while carrying Mattan. The work was hard, and I wouldn’t have the turns to get us back home today.
I unloaded Papa into the same train car where he had once unloaded Granny and Gramps, the car where Vale and I had later assembled Mattan. I stayed while they took Papa apart, by his side now when it didn’t matter, instead of yesterday when it might have. No. It wasn’t Papa I had abandoned yesterday; Papa had never woken up. He would never know. It was my Mattan who had spent the entire day alone, knowing that Papa was gone, having no way to call for help or do much of anything at all but wait for my return. And now he waited again, resting in the sling on my back as Orna, one of our train’s mechanics, carefully opened Papa’s chest and removed the gears, sorting them into bins as she worked. Her movements were practiced and efficient, she wasted no turns. All too soon Papa was gone, nothing but a pile of parts.
“Thank you,” I told Mattan as we left to find Vale. “I needed to see that.”
Mattan didn’t answer, saving his turns.
“I did a terrible thing yesterday,” I continued. “I wouldn’t have gone if I had known about Papa—I thought he would be there to help you—but I shouldn’t have done it even so. I’m sorry.”
“You can’t do everything, always,” Mattan said, choosing his words carefully, not wasting more of his turns than was absolutely necessary. “I forgive you.”
“Some good might even come of it—I asked Vale yesterday if he wanted to see you, and he said yes.”
Mattan squeezed my shoulder ever so slightly through the fabric of the sling, a sign of his excitement at seeing his father. I carried him to the train car with Vale’s dart game set up for anyone who had the tickets to play.
Vale studied us for a time, saying nothing. Was he noticing that I still carried our son, even now that he was an adult? Or was he simply studying the black-and-white striped face he hadn’t seen for hundreds of days? My guilt was for a single day, a single slip. What did he feel, abandoning us for most of his son’s life?
“Say something,” I said. “Mattan has to save his turns, so he doesn’t talk much, but he is so excited to finally see you again.”
“Mattan,” Vale began. He shook his head and started over. “Matts. I know I haven’t been a father to you, but I’m ready to help now, if you want me to. Join me on the train?”
The question was for both us, Mattan and me. I had no tie to Closet City now that Papa was gone, and with Vale’s help we would have enough turns for a better life for all of us. I wavered, undecided, the weight of Mattan pressing down on my back. He didn’t speak, waiting for my decision. Would Vale really help take care of our child, or would he go back on this promise?
Vale had called our son Matts. His heart was in the right place.
“Yes,” I answered. “We’ll join you on the train.”
Mattan squeezed my shoulder, pleased with the decision. I was excited that we might be able to be a family again, but another thought haunted me, something that had been eating at the edges of my mind—what would happen to Mattan when I wound down? For hundreds of days I’d pushed this thought from my mind—I was healthy and full of turns, and Mattan, well his mainspring was bad. I had convinced myself I would outlast him.
Day after day Vale took nearly even turns with me, carrying Mattan on his back as he worked our game or hauled boxes of prizes to and from our platform. I used as many turns as I could spare helping all the newest additions to the carnival—always a turn for a turn, trading endlessly into the future, extracting from everyone I helped a promise to pay that turn forward to Mattan after I was gone. Was it enough? Did it erase that selfish day when I abandoned my son?
I’ve heard it said that every hundred days passes faster than the previous hundred. In childhood, the days stretch out seemingly forever, and we spend our time and turns freely on any whim that catches our fancy. But at the end of our lives, each day becomes an increasingly greater fraction of the time we have remaining, and the moments grow ever more precious. A hundred days, a hundred more, time flits away as we make our slow circuit on the train.
Vale winds all the way down, hard working and supportive to the end. On his last day, he apologizes again and again for abandoning us. We’ve already forgiven him, but he cannot forgive himself. The other carnies start giving back the turns they borrowed from me, helping Mattan through his days. I have no turns to spare—there have never been enough turns, even for me, and I’ve always had more than my share.
An acrobat named Chet, a man with stripes on his arms that match the stripes on Mattan’s face, comes more often than the others. I thought at first that he was trying to fulfill his obligation quickly and get it over with, but no, he lingers even when he isn’t working off his borrowed turns, keeping up a constant stream of chatter, unbothered by the fact that Mattan rarely answers. Chet shares bits and pieces of his past mixed in with gossip about everyone else in Carnival Nine.
My spring is on the verge of breaking, I can feel it. The maker gave my son and me the same number of turns today. Ten turns. Fewer than I’ve ever had, and the most my son has ever been given. For a moment, I am filled with regret at the harsh limitations of his life. His days are already short, and his spring is so bad that he won’t get the thousand days that I have gotten. He will be lucky to live another 100 days, and he is only in his 600s now. I comfort myself with the knowledge that at least he has Chet. He won’t be alone.
I asked Mattan a while back what his favorite day was, his favorite memory, and he’d answered without hesitation—the day that we snuck out together to see the acrobats. So today we ignore what little work we might have done and walk to the tent where the acrobats perform, both of us side by side because I no longer have the turns to carry him. We sit perfectly still and watch the acrobats twirling and flying through the air.
I tell Mattan what Papa told me, “There comes a time when our bodies cannot hold the turns. We all get our thousand days, give or take a few.”
I think back on my thousand days, on what I’ve done with my life. The way Papa had taken such good care of me, and how in the end I’d chosen to follow his path, and done my best for Mattan. My life has been different from the adventures I imagined as a child, but I made the most of the turns I was given, and that’s all any of us can do.