Author’s Note: Here is this year’s original fic for my birthday! A new chapter will post every other day.
The Carousel is loosely a 4-seasons fic, so there is one chapter in each season.
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One bright Tuesday morning in late August, Owen scaled the fence around the abandoned carnival in his dress pants and tie. His usual route through the carnival grounds took him by the shuttered midway games, past the stunted metal legs which were all that remained of the ferris wheel, around the food booths, and then by the carousel.
The carousel horses were mostly missing at this point, cut free and carried off. But someone had tried to replace them in spirit, painting the canopy and inner walls of the ride with high-jumping steeds, bright bridles and empty saddles. Best of all, when the wind was right, it could sway the carousel enough to coax out a few notes of bright tinkling music, played by some mechanism still in place, hidden from view.
Years ago the carnival had been a small permanent fair with modest attractions: midway games, food booths, a ferris wheel, and the carousel. Lots of people climbed the fence to get to the grounds now— you could see graffiti everywhere. Some of it was names and messages, but a lot of it was carnival-inspired.
The maintenance shed had clown faces, some frightening and some benign, their eyes trained on an absent audience. Someone had painted balloons all over one of the midway game booths, bold red and yellow against a cloudless sky. Another booth had a newly painted roller coaster, though the park had never had one.
Owen was an office worker, a financial analyst in a cubicle. Sometimes when he walked through the carnival, he imagined himself working there instead. Maybe handing darts to kids trying to break balloons and win a prize. Maybe selling funnel cakes in a pink booth. Or maybe at the carousel, taking tokens, walking around the ride to check that all the children were seated, throwing the lever that made the horses move and the music play.
Certainly being an analyst paid better. But Owen often lingered by the carousel and its painted horses, wondering which was his favorite. The white one with the roses in its bridle? The yellow with the rainbow mane? Perhaps someday when Owen had children, he’d bring them by and ask them which horse they’d pick to ride.
Today the wind must have been up: Owen could hear the carousel music. Usually the ride would play three or four notes, a scrap of melody that Owen thought he would probably recognize if it lasted longer. Today, though, there was more— notes climbing up, and then silence. Afterwards, notes climbing down again. And then it began to play without the pause. It became a song.
Owen jogged closer in his black sneakers— the one bit of office clothes that you couldn’t wear while scaling a fence was dress shoes— and was astonished to see the lights on the carousel canopy giving off a weak glow. The music was playing brightly now, and Owen thought it looked like the platform wanted to rotate, shifting against the ground. But the gears must have been too rusted, or possibly missing entirely.
Astonished, Owen walked closer to the carousel come to partial life, and felt himself step on something. He looked down to see a circular gold object by his shoe. A token for the carousel, maybe? Owen had assumed all tokens for the carnival were long gone. The coin had the number 4 engraved on its surface. Owen bent down to pick it up, and when he did, everything changed.
Owen straightened up slowly, hardly believing what he was seeing. There was the carnival, same as always, abandoned, decaying. But the carousel— the carousel was shining bright lights and playing broad music as its horses performed their circling dance. The horses looked brand-new, freshly painted and moving gracefully on their poles. Only some were not horses at all, but strange beasts with glittering gold horns and flippers for feet.
Owen looked down at the token in his hand. When he turned it over, he could see that it was for the carousel— one side it had an engraving of a horse on a pole. Owen flipped it back around and found a fresh surprise: where there had been a number 4, now there was a number 3.
Owen walked closer to the carousel, until he could reach out and touch one of the horses as it went by. Its blue mane and sparkly saddle were real and solid beneath his fingers. So was the horse behind it, and the one behind that. The music played cheerily, but it wasn’t a song that Owen knew, after all.
Above the music, Owen could still hear the rest of the world outside the park. Traffic, occasionally a voice or laughter. No one else came to investigate, and Owen almost wondered if he was the only one who could hear and see this.
A moment later, he was proved wrong. Owen heard a step, and then someone came around the other side of the carousel, stopping short when he saw Owen. At first, Owen’s thoughts went to the clowns drawn on the maintenance shed, with their face paint on. But this wasn’t paint. The man— it certainly seemed like a man— was simply blue. All of his skin was blue, and it looked quite natural. His hair was white, cut short on the sides but longer on the top. His eyes were a dark pink around black pupils, and his eyelashes pale. He was otherwise the same as Owen— two arms, two legs. A shirt and pants, both white. Black shoes with thick soles. They looked like they’d probably be great for scaling a chain-link fence.
The man spoke, but it was not any language Owen had heard before. Unsure of what else to do, Owen raised a hand in a wave. The man looked perplexed. Owen was sure his face showed the same thing.
Owen stood by the abandoned carousel, gleaming bright and running merrily, with what seemed like an alien beside it, and thought of his job and his cubicle. He was probably late for work now, for his gray laptop on his gray desk, for a meeting in a windowless room. He couldn’t have cared less.
Owen walked toward the blue man, holding his hands out, empty except for the carousel token. “My name is Owen,” he said. “Can you understand me?”
The man clearly could not. He looked apologetic. “It’s okay,” Owen said. He put a hand to his chest. “Owen. Owen.”
The man seemed to catch on. He put a hand— blue with pale fingernails— to his chest and said what sounded like, “Finch.”
“Finch?” Owen asked.
The man nodded. That gesture at least seemed to translate. “Owen?” asked the man.
“Owen.” Finch had a soft voice, and if a friendly tone could also translate, then he was speaking kindly.
Owen was a fan of a good sci-fi novel now and then. He tried running through explanations in his head. A wormhole. A portal. Was the carousel caught up in the madness or was it the architect of the breach, a machine used to open up a door between two dimensions?
And of course, thoughts of the real world did intrude on Owen’s mind. Maybe he should tell someone. The government, or a reporter. Maybe Owen Jacobson of San Jose, California, should not be the human in charge of first contact with an alien species.
But maybe this wasn’t first contact. Maybe others had met Finch’s species before, and they’d all kept it secret. Certainly Owen didn’t feel threatened by Finch, with his friendly voice and handsome face. (Because— yes, the face was blue, but the man was objectively good-looking.)
Finch pointed at the carousel, inquisitive.
“Yes,” Owen said, nodding. “Yes, it’s different today.”
Finch put a hand to his ear and then pointed at the carousel again.
“Oh, you heard it! Yes, I heard it too.” Owen touched his ear and pointed. “The music was playing. And then I found this.” Owen held out the token in his hand, with its number 3.
Finch came near enough to see the token. He looked at Owen, clearly trying to see if Owen was objecting. Owen was not. Slowly, Finch put his hand out and touched the token where it lay in Owen’s palm. But when he tried to pick it up, the entire scene wavered like a heat mirage.
The carousel went out of tune. The lights dimmed. Finch himself seemed to fade, becoming nearly transparent. At once, he let go of the token, and when it hit Owen’s palm again, everything returned to sharp focus. The carousel played on, repeating its pleasant tune as if nothing was wrong.
Owen folded his hand closed around the token. Finch said something, and Owen nodded. “The token must be the key to all this.”
For a moment, they looked at each other, smiling. “This is so exciting. I wish I could talk to you,” Owen said.
Finch looked like something occurred to him, and he pulled an object from his pocket. It seemed to be a wallet, bright white. He opened it and pulled out a photograph. Owen stepped closer to see. There were five people in the picture, all with blue skin. Some had white hair, some had blue or black. Finch was there, smiling.
“Your family?” Owen asked. He reached for his cell phone, opening it to a gallery. Finch’s eyes widened, clearly confused by the device. “You don’t have cell phones?” Owen asked. “How do you survive?”
It didn’t take long for Finch to get the hang of the phone, swiping between pictures of Owen with family and friends. There were some landscapes too: a beach, a forest. Finch was fascinated.
“Here,” Owen said, “let’s— let’s try a picture. A selfie.” He activated the camera and flipped it to show both of them. Finch gave a short laugh and stepped closer, so they were both in the frame. They didn’t quite touch, but the picture captured them smiling.
As Owen lowered the phone, Finch said something and held out his hand. Owen barely hesitated before taking it. Finch began to walk slowly, leading Owen around the side of the carousel. Owen could see the other chain-link fence now, and the street beyond it. Everything looked normal: cars, an alley with dumpsters. Apparently no one who was farther away from the carousel could tell anything was different.
“Oh, I don’t think this will work,” Owen said, as he realized what Finch was doing. And unfortunately, he was right. As they got farther from the carousel, the weight of Finch’s hand in Owen’s grew lighter, and once again, Finch began to fade from view. He stopped abruptly, and backed up a few steps, staring at their hands until they looked normal again.
“It’s just us,” Owen said. “I can’t see your world, and I guess you can’t see mine. The only thing we share is the carousel.”
They spoke for a long time after that, standing by the spinning horses. The talking largely went nowhere, but it felt like a conversation anyway. They laughed often, and occasionally touched— a hand to a chest to feel a heartbeat, a brush of fingers as they tried to look things up on Owen’s phone. Unfortunately, Owen had no service at the moment, and could only access things that were downloaded, like the pictures. He showed Finch a game where you connected colored lines and played him all the alert sounds in the alarm app.
Owen didn’t notice when the carousel music began to fade, until Finch looked up, startled. Then Owen realized the horses were slowing and the lights dimming.
Owen still had the token in his hand, held tightly, so that wasn’t the problem. Finch said something and Owen nodded. “I guess it doesn’t last.” He opened his palm on a sudden inspiration. “Three,” he said, pointing to the number. “I think it will happen again, three more times.” He grasped Finch’s hand, folding his thumb and little finger down, then touched each finger that remained. “One, two, three.” He pointed at the token, then held up three fingers of his own.
“Chay,” Finch said, nodding. “Three.”
“Yes. Chay.” Owen grasped Finch’s shoulder as he began to fade. “I hope I’ll see you again,” Owen said. “When the music comes—”
Finch placed his hand over Owen’s, and for a second, Owen could still feel it. But then Finch was gone. The carousel was silent again, its horses missing. Owen flipped through the pictures on his phone. The one with Finch was still there. And he still had the token. He closed his fingers around it to keep it safe.
Owen walked by the carousel every morning, every evening, and sometimes on his lunch break. Every time the wind rocked the platform and a few notes sounded, his heart would race, his mind finishing the melody that he’d memorized. But though Owen clutched the token tightly, the carousel never changed. There were no lights, no circling horses.
Still, Owen downloaded an array of things onto his phone: favorite music, a map of the stars, pictures of food and animals, videos of people teaching English lessons. He bought an extra phone battery. His work bag now carried books for teaching children to read English: A is for Apple, B is for Bear. He brought a book of math equations and a folder of sheet music.
Every day Owen sat in his cubicle, daydreaming about another world. He thought it would be nice if he could print out a certain picture and put it in a frame on his desk. Perhaps he could tell people it was cosplay, that Finch was wearing a disguise. But it seemed like an unnecessary risk.
Owen began to pack lunches that showcased the best of autumn in California: apples, grapes, figs, lettuce salad with bell peppers and pears. Every day, he ate it alone.
Owen did have other excitements in his life. He was a hiker and a distance runner. He liked to swim in the ocean, cold as it was. He had friends that he went out with occasionally, to a bar or a show, and online friends too.
And yet Finch occupied Owen’s mind every time he got bored at work or laid awake at night. It was because of the magic, Owen told himself. Seeing the carousel come back to life. Learning that other worlds existed, that someone who lived across such a border was shockingly similar to himself. Not threatening, but friendly. Cautious but not afraid.
And okay, yes, Finch was very handsome. At home, Owen had their picture on his kitchen counter.
Owen heard the carousel music again on a Sunday afternoon, the last day in November. He’d spent his morning cooking meals for the next week, but afterwards, of course, he’d gone to the carnival. Owen had just scaled the fence when he heard the full carousel song playing, and he nearly dropped his bag rushing toward it.
There was music and faint lights, but no horses except the painted ones, until Owen reached into his pocket and closed his hand around the token. The horses burst into view, clean and colorful, flowered saddles and golden sparkling horns. That familiar melody played loud and clear, and there in the bright lights stood Finch, with a look of relief on his face.
“Oh, I hope you haven’t waited long,” Owen said. “I’m sorry.”
Finch was smiling as they came together by the edge of the carousel. “Your hair is longer,” Owen said, tugging on a bit of his own hair to demonstrate. And then somehow it seemed right to Owen to reach out and touch Finch’s hair. It was pure white, soft and silky, wavy now that it was long enough to reach Finch’s jawline. Owen tucked a lock of it behind Finch’s ear.
Finch was not moving, looking at Owen with surprise, and something else. Owen drew his hand back. “I brought you some books,” he said softly, but he wondered what message Finch would get from that tone, without the words.
They sat on the ground. Next time, Owen decided, he’d bring chairs. At least Finch was in darker clothes today, burgundy and blue. Something seemed to occur to Finch and he reached for Owen’s closed hand. When Owen opened it to reveal the token, they found the number 2.
Finch put up two fingers, questioning. Owen nodded. “Two.”
“Feld,” said Finch.
Owen closed his hand again, not wanting the reminder. Next time, when he brought the chairs, it would almost be the end.
Owen reached for his bag and then laughed to see that Finch had brought one as well. Finch pulled a book out of his: photographs, landscapes. There was a vast lake that sparkled turquoise in the sun, surrounded by yellow sand. A forest of trees bearing pink leaves and blue flowers. An ocean with whitecaps, but the water black like ink. And there at the surface were the creatures from the carousel: horse-like but with flippers and gold horns.
They worked on Finch’s English after that. C is for Cat. D is for Dog. Finch was rather alarmed by the picture of the cat, and further disturbed by the dog— for whatever reason, E is for Eagle was more palatable, and that made Owen remember something. He reached for his phone and flipped through pictures he’d downloaded until he got to a little gray bird with an orange beak, standing on a twig.
“Finch,” Owen said.
Finch raised a white eyebrow, pointing at the bird. “Finch?”
A smile twitched on Finch’s mouth. “They’re beautiful birds,” Owen said. He held out his hands— one still closed around the token— to give an estimate of its small size.
Owen told Finch all about Earth, the animals and people. He played music, starting with a haunting Peer Gynt piece by Grieg and then California Girls by the Beach Boys. Finch laughed, startled, when the upbeat music started.
When it faded away, the carousel music was audible again, and Finch gave the spinning horses a look of melancholy.
“I know,” Owen said heavily. It had been nearly three hours already.
Finch said something, and of course Owen didn’t know what, but the tone was soft and gently sad. Finch reached out and touched Owen’s cheek, sliding his blue fingers down his jaw, and then, slowly, up to his lips. Finch left his fingers there for a moment before drawing away.
Finch leaned forward and Owen didn’t lean back, and then their mouths were touching.
Oh, thought Owen. Oh, now this made more sense. Because whatever Finch was feeling to want this— Owen felt it too.
Owen cupped Finch’s cheek in his hand, drawing him closer. The gentle kiss turned into two and then three, with lips parting on the third one. Owen pulled back slightly, but Finch followed, and the next kiss was deeper. Finch tasted sweet and Owen moaned softly into his mouth.
It stayed quiet, easy, comfortable. Owen had never kissed comfortably before. Maybe there had always been too many words in the way. But with Finch— the kiss was the clearest thing they’d tried to say.
The kiss finally drew to a close, unhurried, and Finch rested his forehead on Owen’s shoulder. Owen put his arms around him.
They talked more as the daylight faded and the stars came out. It was well beyond three hours now that the carousel had been going, and Owen was glad for every second of borrowed time. They looked at the maps of stars on Owen’s phone. Finch had brought his own star maps, in a book. The whirling lights of the carousel over the pictures made the stars look like they were twinkling.
Owen and Finch were not seeing the same stars when they looked up, they determined. Like everything outside of the circle of the carousel’s influence, each saw their own.
Owen’s stomach eventually growled, which startled Finch. Owen laughed, putting Finch’s hand against his abdomen to feel the gurgling. Finch understood then, and pulled some container out of his bag. He opened it to reveal what looked sort of like noodles with vegetables. It smelled delicious.
They exchanged lunches, though they were both more interested in watching the other one eat than they were in their own eating. Finch had brought a spork, of all things, and Owen heartily approved.
The noodles were sweet. They tasted, Owen thought with a bit of a thrill, like Finch had during the kiss.
Finch liked the lettuce and grapes. He looked askance at the pear slices. “Oh, they’re so good, though,” Owen said. “What’s wrong? Is it the texture?” He picked up a slice and took a bite. “Soft and kind of sandy,” he said. “Go ahead.” He held out a slice to Finch.
Finch made it clear that the pear tasting was against his better judgment. He took a bite from the piece Owen was holding and immediately wrinkled his nose in distaste.
Owen laughed. “All right, I give up.” He put the pear down. “Good try, though.”
Finch swallowed the bite he’d taken, but even after, he didn’t change his expression. They’d both brought several bottles of water, and Owen passed him one. Finch drank some, but part of it spilled out of his mouth. His breathing began to grow raspy and his blue skin began to turn a dusty purple.
“Oh my god, I think you’re allergic,” Owen gasped. “Oh, shit. I’m sorry, I should have thought—” He put an arm around Finch, drawing him in, leaning him back against his chest, trying to keep his airway open. “Breathe,” Owen said. “Please, just breathe.”
Owen looked outside of the carousel’s lights. People were passing by occasionally, and cars, even though it had to be near midnight. No one gave them a glance. No one could see them. Which meant the people in Finch’s world couldn’t see him either.
Finch’s breathing grew louder and harsher. He put his hands to his throat, leaning back on Owen’s shoulder.
“No, no, no, no,” Owen said. “Finch, please.” He reached forward to dump out Finch’s bag, looking for anything like medicine, an epi-pen.
Somewhere in the frantic searching, Owen dropped the token.
The carousel went dark. The music abruptly ceased. And Finch, gasping, cradled against Owen’s chest, vanished.
It was just after midnight on December 1, and Owen was alone on the silent carnival grounds in the dark. Finch was gone. But somewhere— the token must still be there. Owen searched frantically, sliding his hands over the cracking cement ground where grass and dandelions were pushing through. He couldn’t find it.
Maybe it was for the best, he thought shakily. After all, with the carousel not running, Finch was back in his own world. People would be able to see him. They’d be able to help.
Owen shook his phone to switch on the flashlight, climbing to his feet to cover more ground. But with that came the awful reminder that it was dark where Finch was too. They’d just been looking at stars. If Finch’s carousel wasn’t near anyone— he’d be lying there in the dark until he died. No help was coming.
Owen’s thoughts tumbled around his head, increasingly panicked, ceasing only when the light from his phone caught something that shone gold. A token with the number 2.
Owen fell to his knees and grabbed the token.
The carousel wasn’t playing small snatches of the song. Its lights weren’t shining at all.
Last time it had taken three months before Owen had heard the song again—
Owen turned his flashlight on the carousel. In the shaking beam, the painted horses seemed to move, but it was only an illusion. “Finch!” Owen yelled. Of course no one answered.
Owen clambered onto the carousel platform. The structure was unbalanced after so many years, and shifted under his weight. “Come on,” Owen pleaded, walking the circle. “Come on, please. Move.”
Owen closed his eyes. In his mind, the horses appeared, endlessly revolving. He’d never actually watched them that closely, much more focused on Finch. But he could vaguely recall them now. There was a blue horse with flippers wearing a pink saddle with white flowers, and of course, the golden horns. Perhaps that was his favorite. Owen stopped walking, motionless on the still carousel, imagining all of it moving, himself astride the blue horse with horns—
Owen was abruptly thrown off balance as the carousel came to life, falling to his knees. He nearly dropped the token again, but his hand stayed clenched closed. Stunned, it took a few seconds before Owen could get to his feet. His legs ached, but he hardly felt it. He stumbled around the side of the carousel and there— there was Finch. On the ground, not moving. But Owen could hear that same terrible rasping breathing.
First, the bags, Owen thought. He gathered the scattered contents and shoved them back inside, then put both of them under Finch’s head and shoulders to prop him up. Finch barely reacted when Owen moved him.
Next, the phone. Owen unlocked it with his fingerprint, and took the extra seconds to remove the lock. Then he pulled up the music, the Beach Boys, as loud as it could go. Finch stirred at that, but didn’t open his eyes. Owen put the phone in Finch’s hand backwards, so that the flashlight shone brightly into the sky.
Last, the pear. Owen had saved out the plastic container with the pear slices and he put it in Finch’s other hand. Maybe the doctors would be able to help if they knew what he’d reacted to.
And now, the end.
Owen wasn’t going to get to say goodbye.
Owen kissed Finch on the forehead. Then he opened his hand and let the token fall.
The carousel went dark and Owen was alone once more. On the pavement, the token bore the number 1.
Twenty-five years later
On the first of December, Owen always remembered. He remembered Finch every other day, too, but December first was the hardest.
Owen didn’t think his kids had noticed. They were young adults now, nineteen and twenty-one. Their mother had moved out a few years before. Owen and Grace, who was now his ex-wife, loved each other still, but living a half mile apart was easier on everyone.
Owen didn’t think even Grace had noticed what melancholy overtook him every year on December first, but apparently, someone had. And thus this December first, Owen walked through his front door and into an unanticipated Family Meeting.
Jill, Owen’s daughter, had made cookies. She always did that when she wanted something. Owen looked at the cookies on the table, glanced at Grace and their son Alex eating them, and groaned. “What did I do now?”
Jill made him sit down. Then she pulled out a little wooden box that Owen hadn’t opened in years. “I found this in your closet.”
“What were you doing in my closet?”
“Looking for my teddy bear. It wasn’t at Mom’s.”
Owen reached for a cookie by reflex. Jill had just finished her first semester at community college, and she was now getting her own place with a couple of friends. And she wanted her childhood teddy bear. “My baby is moving out,” Owen lamented.
“Dad. Focus.” That was Alex. He lived in the dorms of a university a couple of towns over. Alex opened the box and pulled out a 25-year-old photograph. “Who’s this?”
Owen put down his cookie, half-eaten. He didn’t really want to look at the photo, but he reached for it anyway.
God, look at their smiles. Giddy. New love, maybe, even that first day. “It’s cosplay,” Owen mumbled.
Grace raised her eyebrows. “Bullshit. But we’ll table that. This is him, right?”
“There’s no him.”
“Owen, honestly. I know there was somebody before me. Somebody you never got over.” Grace tapped the picture. “Look at your face.”
“When we went to Disney, you freaked out about the carousel,” Alex said. “It was really weird. You acted like it was the scariest ride there. And now we know why.” Alex reached into the box and pulled out the other item it contained: a gold token with a carousel horse on one side, and a number 1 on the other.
Owen almost started to cry. Jill quickly passed him another cookie.
“Did he pass away on December first?” Grace asked gently.
“I don’t know.” Owen was crying, he wiped away tears. “I tried to find out. I tried for months and months. Years.”
“We just— we want to know about him,” Jill said. “Because you loved him. And also the guy is blue.”
“He’s an alien,” Owen said.
“Yeah, we— we got that.”
Owen ate cookies, and the story came out. The carousel. The token. The lights and music. Finch. The books, the laughter. The kiss. The pear. “This picture is all I ever had of him,” Owen said.
Jill picked up the token. “So you still have one more visit.”
“I thought so. I went back every day, multiple times a day, at first. Sometimes the carousel played its music, and I would hold the token, but nothing ever came of it. I started to think that maybe it would take us both, that both of us had to be there for it to work. And— well, I think it’s obvious that Finch— that he died. I couldn’t save him.”
Alex was twisting his mouth in that way he did when he was thinking. “That doesn’t sound like alien tech. More like magic.”
“Does it matter?”
“I think it does. Because tech’s just tech, right? It has no morals or desires. But magic— magic has a purpose. And maybe the purpose was to bring you two together.” Alex shrugged. “If that’s the case, then there’s a reason you’ve got one visit left.”
“Don’t you have anything you want to say to him?” Jill asked.
“It wouldn’t matter if I did, we don’t speak the same language.” Owen licked chocolate off his thumb. “Look, I appreciate the support, but I don’t think it’s going to change anything. Finch was much more likely to be at the carnival twenty-five years ago, and he wasn’t. Why on earth would he be there now?”
“Well,” Jill said, “maybe his kids are nagging him about it.”
Grace spoke around a bite of cookie. “Anyway, I want to see this magic alien carousel.”
Owen was still a runner. He was in good shape for his age. Nevertheless, scaling the fence was a lot harder than he remembered. The kids had no trouble. Or Grace, of course. She was a dancer.
“I feel old,” Owen complained as they stood on the cracked pavement. There were a lot more dandelions than there had been before.
“You are old,” Jill said. “Show us around?”
They began to walk past the midway booths. Some had collapsed by now, but one had fresh paint: a ferris wheel full of brightly colored people, against a starry sky. “Honestly, I’m surprised this is all still here,” Owen said.
“Seems like people care about it,” Alex said, pointing at the maintenance shed. The clown faces were updated, with modern makeup and hair styles.
They came around the corner, and there was the carousel.
“Oh,” Owen said heavily. “This was— it was nicer then.”
The mural of painted horses had not been kept up. They were dulled by dirt and age, their faces and flowers flaking away. Only parts of them were recognizable: Owen picked out the flank of the yellow mare and a few locks of her rainbow mane.
Alex climbed onto the platform. It swayed under his weight, off balance still.
“Be careful!” Grace said, with motherly disapproval.
Alex studied the painting, close up. “This could be redone,” he said. “It wouldn’t take that much, really.” He walked— carefully— around the side and disappeared from their view. “Hey, guys, come look at this!”
They hurried around the side, and Owen gasped. Here, on what he’d come to think of as Finch’s side of the carousel, the painted horses had been restored, bright and colorful, their saddles covered in flowers and their hooves glittering in the sun. And there— in one broad stretch of blue sky, someone had painted a little gray bird with an orange beak. A finch.
Finch had specks of orange paint on his fingers. He didn’t really want to wash them off, because they reminded him of what he’d been doing this morning: touch-ups of the mural. It wasn’t really needed, but Finch had been spending a lot of time at the park. Just in case.
But the orange paint had to come off because Finch was working on his skin tone again. He adjusted a dial on the wristband he wore. “Okay,” he said. “How is this one?”
“You’re pink,” said Edda. She crossed her arms, disapproving.
“Humans are kind of pink.”
“Yeah, not hot pink. You look like that— what do they call it? Flamingo you showed me in that book.”
Owen frowned and messed with the dials some more.
“Now you’re red,” Edda said. “And now you’re purple. Honestly, if you can’t get it right, I think gray would be your best bet. I mean, they turn gray sometimes.”
“When they’re ill. And they do turn bright pink if they get sunburned.”
“Oh, hold it!” Edda put her own blue hands out. “That’s it, that’s really close. Kind of peach-pink-gray.”
Finch looked down at his hands. It was a bit of a shock to see hands like Owen had. Finch noted the numbers on the dials of the wristband. “Okay. I think I can get this to last for about two hours before it needs recharging.”
“That’s great.” Edda lifted herself up to sit on a counter beside some of Finch’s messy electronic projects. She’d been Finch’s colleague for six years, and two years ago, he’d let her in on the secret of his life’s work.
“It’s probably a lost cause, though,” Finch said heavily. “He’s got to be long gone.”
Edda made a disgruntled noise and pointed to the sign on the door to Finch’s lab, which proclaimed in red letters NO GIVING UP HOPE. Edda had made the sign herself. Finch’s students thought it was a joke about exams.
It had taken Finch a week to recover from the allergic reaction he’d had to Owen’s food. He’d been barely conscious as he was rescued by bystanders, enough to realize that it was Owen’s phone and music that had attracted attention. Owen had done his best to save Finch’s life. Finch wanted to tell him he’d been successful.
Twice in the following weeks Finch had been in the park and heard the carousel music play. If Owen was there with the token, they could be reunited. But Finch had kept his distance from the carousel, not going close enough to let it wake.
They only had one visit left.
The carousel was in an overgrown park near Finch’s house. He’d discovered it by accident on a walk one day, hidden by trees and partly covered with vines. No one he asked knew anything about it, but Finch was fascinated by the old ride. In the bushes beside it, he found the remains of a couple of philears made for riding, with their flippers and horns, and even one animal that Finch now knew was called a “horse.”
Someone had painted the center of the old ride with bright horses and beautiful flowers. Finch had no idea at the time that the painting had been done by someone on another planet.
Then came the afternoon that Finch was walking through the park and heard the carousel music playing. Entranced, he stepped close to the ride and everything changed. The horses and philears came to mechanical life, the lights shone brightly, and the music rang out clearly.
That day Finch met a person that he didn’t know he needed. But after two (technically three) short visits, he lost him again.
Finch had been a young science and engineering teacher then. He’d assumed the carousel was magic, but he thought there was a chance he could discover its mechanism anyway. If so, then maybe he could alter the spell and give Owen and himself more time together.
That thought had kept Finch going through the first few years after their visits. It had been exciting then, because Finch constantly felt like he was on the edge of a great discovery. Several milestones did pass: Finch replicated Owen’s phone battery so that he could keep the device powered up. After that, he managed to integrate the phone’s systems with his own computer to back up all the files, which was good because the poor phone did eventually die of old age.
Owen studied the information on the phone and in Owen’s bag, trying to learn basic English from the books and videos. At one point, he’d taken the problem to a linguist friend as a “thought exercise,” and the friend had helped Finch sort out the basic rules of the language.
Finch had learned that Owen’s world was called Earth. He knew where in the galaxy it was located. Earth people didn’t seem to have contact with any other worlds, which made Owen’s acceptance of Finch all the more surprising (and flattering).
The carousel sat at a gateway of sorts, between their distant worlds. Finch didn’t know why or how, or who had put it there. It was magic, pure and simple.
Over time, the pace of discoveries slowed down, and Finch grew disillusioned.
It wasn’t like he didn’t have a life of his own, friends and professional achievements. He enjoyed teaching, and was fond of his students. He just felt it was unfair to have a glimpse of something beautiful and not be able to hold onto it.
Two years ago, Edda, a fellow teacher, had gotten the story out of Finch. He had all but given up at that point, and finally felt able to talk about it. As it turned out, he should have told Edda long before that, because after hearing the story, she asked one rather obvious question that had never occurred to Finch: if you can’t break the spell, can you break yourself out of it?
Finch had spent twenty-three years attacking the problem of how to increase the number of visits allowed between himself and Owen. He’d reasoned that if he could learn to activate the carousel on his own, then they could meet there whenever they liked. So even though Owen had the token, Finch had tried replicating it, using different metals, different engraving methods, different numbers. Nothing had any effect on the carousel. He tried repairing the carousel and the music box inside. He’d run up against a magic wall there: even with his engineering skills, the music refused to play on command.
Then Finch started thinking about that last night, when he’d had the allergic reaction. He knew that Owen had somehow gotten the carousel to work again after dropping the token. It might have been the case that the carousel had randomly reactivated, but it was also possible that something Owen had done in those few minutes of time had recast the spell.
Finch tried to think of what Owen could have said or changed, what contents of their bags he might have used. But he could never get anything to work. His best guess now was that Owen had just been so scared for Finch that the magic had taken pity on him.
Gradually, Finch had given up hope of having control over the spell. But he’d never thought about escaping it.
Edda was an astrophysicist. She was very interested in the idea of the spell’s boundaries, and the fact that when Owen and Finch had gotten too far away from the carousel, their connection faded. And thus the wristband had been born. The idea was that if Finch could project the electromagnetic signature of Earth around himself, maybe he could fool the magic. The technology existed for sending messages between worlds, among other things. But no one had ever tried to wear it.
There was no way to know if it would work without the carousel reactivating, and there was no way to know when or if that would happen. Finch had visited often over the years, and the carousel played very rarely now.
But there was a way to get a message to Owen, if he ever came back to the park.
That winter, with the wristband more or less functioning, Finch repainted the horses on his side of the carousel. He did it in the late afternoons when the sunlight was best on that side of the ride, recreating horses and flowers in the dappled shadows cast by leaves. In one corner of the sky, he added a finch.
All that winter, Finch kept vigil beside the carousel, but the music never played. Winter turned to spring. On the day that Finch and Edda finally got the skin-tone hologram in the wristband to work, Finch resolved to start camping out at the carousel if he needed to.
He didn’t need to. The carousel played its music that very night.
Finch had shown up with a folding chair, to make the waiting easier. But with the carousel awake, he was far too anxious to sit. He almost couldn’t bear it, the thought that all his work over so many years could come down to this moment.
So was the thought that the wristband might not work. If not, then this was it. Finch had never found a way to give them more than this one last visit.
Finch paced. The sun began to set and it cast shadows through the wind-shaken branches of the trees, making it seem like the carousel was moving. But it remained still.
Of course, there was also the possibility that it would work, but Owen wouldn’t want Finch in his life. Maybe Owen only wanted a chance to make sure Finch was okay, and say goodbye. Still, that would be better than nothing.
Finch had told Edda goodbye, just in case. They’d worked out an explanation of him moving off-world. Finch had taken with him the few things he thought were absolutely necessary: a photo of his parents, now deceased. A favorite book of poetry. Medication to thwart a severe allergic reaction.
And now Finch was thinking it was all ridiculous. Planning to go permanently to another world for someone he’d known for a few hours twenty-five years ago—
The carousel abruptly began to play, loud and clear. Finch was facing away, looking out into the tangle of trees, and they were suddenly lit up by the carousel’s colored lights. Finch turned.
There was Owen.
Oh, he’d aged. His face had a few lines, his dark hair now largely silver. Finch was no better, his light hair turning dark.
Of course, Owen was as devastatingly handsome as he’d been before. Finch had never seen a more attractive man, even with the odd coloring. (That was part of the problem, actually.)
In the one picture Finch had of Owen, he was smiling, looking joyful. Owen wasn’t smiling now. He looked terrified.
“You came back,” Owen said.
“You came back, too.”
Owen’s eyes widened. “Did you— you’re speaking English.”
“I speak some. I learned some. I learned some from your books.”
Owen took a few steps forward. “You— you’re all right. I thought you might be dead.”
“I’m not dead. You saved me.” Finch took a couple of steps closer too. “I’m sorry—”
Then Owen said something that Finch didn’t quite understand. Finch felt like he was back at the beginning, when they couldn’t communicate with words at all. And oh, that did make it simpler.
They rushed forward together, and then they were embracing, tight and desperate. Owen was slightly larger, and he managed to lift Finch off his feet, swinging him around. And from there, they fell into a kiss— their second. This one wasn’t quiet and calm like the first. It was heady, emotional. Deep and hungry. It said so much. It said nearly everything.
When the kiss broke, Owen pressed his face against Finch’s shoulder and said something muffled. Finch caught the gist of it. “It is our last meeting,” he said. “But the meeting— the meeting might last. I don’t know if I said that right.” (He’d made sure to memorize that disclaimer.)
Owen wiped a tear off of Finch’s cheek. Finch hadn’t realized he was crying.
“I tried to fix it,” Finch said. He held up his arm so that Owen could see the wristband. An adjustment changed Finch’s skin color to match Owen’s.
Owen said something loud and quick that Finch didn’t catch. Then— “I can’t believe I thought you weren’t advanced because you didn’t have phones.”
“I’m a scientist,” Finch said. “But I couldn’t tell you that I’m a scientist.”
Owen looked dazed, seized by a dawning hope. “If you can do that to your skin— wait, why did you do that? Can you come with me?”
“Maybe. Do you want me to come with you?”
Owen kissed him again. “I love you,” he said. “I’ve never stopped loving you.”
Finch clutched Owen’s hand desperately. “We should try my— we should see the fix.” He wasn’t entirely happy with that sentence, but Owen seemed to have gotten the point.
Owen tugged on Finch’s hand, and they began to walk. Past the carousel. Past the spinning horses and philears. To the point where Finch saw trees and overgrown greenery, and Owen must see something else.
They both looked at where their hands were joined, as they’d been 25 years ago.
This time, when Owen stepped over the border, it was not Finch that faded, but Finch’s world. The park disappeared and Finch found himself standing on cracked ground with small plants growing through. The air was warm, and there were sounds of people everywhere. A few feet away stood three people who for some reason looked delighted to see Finch.
Finch realized that Owen was openly crying. Finch probably was too. They caught each other up in another embrace.
Behind them, the carousel fell silent. When they looked at the token again, there was no number on it at all.
Owen laid the token on the ground. “You never know. Maybe it will work for someone else.” He kissed Finch’s hand where he held it. “Like it worked for us.”