There was no point in trying to resist; I was already at the table, reaching for the plate.
I took one of the cookies and bit into it. I blinked, surprised. The smell might have been irresistible, but the cookie was even better-- something cinnamon and vanilla-y, and softer that I'd expected. I dropped into the chair and finished it quickly, then, without thinking, I reached for another. Then another.
I heard the back door creak open sometime between the 4th and 5th cookie. The man didn't say anything, at first, but I could feel him watching me from where he stood in the back. I didn't stop eating. I couldn't
Then he finally came over. He pulled out the chair across me and sat on it backwards, with his arms crossed over the back of it. He was smiling.
"That good stuff?" he said, nodding his head to the plate.
I froze, mouth full, my arm stopped mid-air between reaching for another cookie.
"It's okay," he said, pushing the plate closer. "Have as many as you like."
And suddenly, I didn't want any more.
"No, thank you," I said, pushing the plate back.
The man laughed, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up.
"Eat another cookie."
And I did. My hand shout out and stuffed one into my face before I could stop it. I tried to spit the cookie out, but I couldn't, and trying only made it hard to breathe. All I could do was chew it up and swallow.
"You shouldn't eat things without asking first," the man said. "Have another."
"Y'see, sprout, there's rules around here about that sort of thing. Betcha didn't know that, huh?"
"I'm sorry," I said. "I--"
"Stop talking and eat another cookie."
"Don't cry about it," he said. And when he did, my eyes dried, and my nose cleared up.
"There's no need for crying," he said. "I take care of my stuff, and you're my stuff now, so don't worry."
He got up and started rummaging around the back desk while I stared at the empty plate. A moment later, he returned with a bundle of clothes.
"Get up, Sprout. That's your name, now. Sprout."
And suddenly it was.
I tried to remember what my name was-- he said it like I had a different one. He said it like Sprout was new, and there was an old name hiding around somewhere. But all I could think of was Sprout. Of course I was named Sprout.
"You work for me, now," he said. "You'll do as I say. You won't be able not to. Now, go be good and put on this uniform. When you're done, I'll show you around."
Numbly, I took the bundle of clothes from him.
"There's room in back for you to change. Go on."
I stepped through the doorway, expecting to see more of the dingy building. But the doorway led from the little office into a dark tunnel, a tunnel lit by torches that were mounted on walls made of rock. There were alcoves along the tunnel, and when I went near one, I saw it led into a small, cave-like room carved into the rock. I put on the clothes by torch light and found them to be several sizes too big. When I left the room, I nearly bumped into two of the goblin-looking carnival workers.
Their froggy faces split into grins when they saw me, displaying their triangular, cartoony teeth.
"New meat?" he said. "Ha! Welcome to the team, kid."
"Whose is he?" said the other. "If nobody's got a claim on him, I want him."
"No way," said the first. "I saw him earlier today. Dibs."
"Shut up, the both of you," said the red-haired man, stepping out of the doorway that led to the office. "That's mine."
"Sorry, Renard," said the pair. "No harm meant."
"You," Renard said, pointing at me. "Follow."
The he turned and went back through the doorway, and I trailed behind. He strode out of the office and then held the door open for me to go through.
I blinked. The sun was setting.
"Time passes differently in the tunnels," Renard said. "Don't think too much about it. I don't."
I waited on the little porch as he locked up.
"You said your sister was around here, right?"
"Yes," I said miserably. Did he want to take Mia too? She'd be able to get away, wouldn't she? It didn't seem like this place affected her the same way it did me. . .
"Right. In that case. . . " He straightened up and said, "Wait here."
I watched him turn the corner of the building, heading towards somewhere in back. Every part of me screamed run!, but my feet refused to move.
This is it, isn't it? I thought. This is my life now.
Renard appeared a few minutes later with what was either a small log or a large branch. he stood the log up, squinted at me, then looked back at the log. "Let's see if I still remember how to do this. . . " he muttered.
And then I was standing next to him.
It wasn't me, I was still on the porch steps leading to the office. But beside him was a boy the same height as me, with the same clothes I had worn earlier, with the same face that looked at me every morning from the bathroom mirror.
"There we go," he said. "And as for you. . . "
He beckoned me forward. I didn't move-- apparently he had to say an order out loud for it to work on me. But he rolled his eyes and said, "Come here, Sprout."
He pressed his hand to my forehead, and for a second the skin on my face felt as it had been touched by a cold wind. The feeling passed, and I backed away from him.
"What did you do?" I said, touching my face.
"Just a little glamor," he said. "I wouldn't want your family recognizing you. Would make it awkward if they saw two of you running around. Come on, you two. Let's go find your sister."
He started for the wooden fence, and the boards vanished at his approach. The fake-me kept pace with him, and I hung back, dragging my feet. There had to be some way out of it. Mia would be able to tell, wouldn't she?
We passed through the fence and back into the market area. Renard led us, walking like he knew exactly what he was doing.
"Where are we going?" I said.
"To meet your sister," he said. "She's been looking for you. And she should be coming right about--"
"There you are!" Mia screeched behind us.
Renard flashed me a smile. "Bingo."
She saw us and rushed up to my doppelgänger. "I was looking for you!"
"Don't move, Sprout. Not a word out of you," said Renard.
My jaw clamped shut. I screamed through my clenched teeth, and he smirked.
"Hello young lady!" he said when Mia approached. "Your brother here has been looking for you!"
He gently nudged my double, who went to Mia and said, in my voice, "There you are!"
"I lost you!" Mia said.
"You did!" Not-me said. Then, before he could say anything else, he broke into a coughing fit. Not little wheezy coughs, but loud, ugly wet ones. "We should be getting home," he wheezed afterwards. "The place is closing up soon."
"What's wrong?" Mia said.
"Nothing," he said. "I'm just not feeling to good."
"Oh," she said, worry in her voice. "Okay. Yeah, we can go home if you're not feeling good."
He offered her his hand, and I screamed through my teeth again, but my double coughed over the sound of it.
"Sorry," he said when he'd finished. He took her hand.
"You're really hot," Mia said. "We gotta go home."
And my double turned back to look at me and Renard and said, "Thanks."
"Yeah, thank you," Mia said.
And the two walked off together, and were heading towards the exit with the rest of the dwindling crowd.
Renard watched them go, arms crossed, a small, satisfied smile on his face. "Don't go after them or scream or anything," he said, not even looking at me. "But you can talk to me now."
"What's he going to do to her?" I said.
"Nothing," he said. "Come on, let's go out you to work. The place will be coming down, soon."
It was true; everywhere staff members were directing guests to the exits or boarding up the place. Games and rides were shut down, and tunnels began sprouting up all over.
"What's going to happen to them?" I said again, my voice cracking.
Renard glanced back at me. "Your sister will be fine. Eventually. Can't say the same for your doppelgänger. That thing's got a week left tops."
I stared, and felt the world rush backwards, as though I were falling. "It's going to die?" I said.
"It's better for the families that way," Renard said. "Oh, don't give me that sad puppy look. Would you rather you vanish forever, with them never knowing and always wondering? It's better they see you go and move on with their lives. I'm being nice, kid."
I stared at his feet. I wanted to look up at him, but I couldn't. I guessed I still had the sad puppy look.
"Come on, Sprout," he said, taking my arm. "You're gonna help me carry stuff down below. Follow me."
And I did.
When the last of the guests had left the park, all the carnival staff packed their things at the speed of magic. The rides, games, and shops all collapsed and folded up in ways I wouldn't have thought possible, and I couldn't tell if it was the product of clever engineering or enchantment.
And when the sun had gone down at last, and the stars were staring to peek out, Renard and I stepped into a tunnel, and he closed it behind us.