Rippling tents, the scent of candy floss, a baking sun that threatened to melt the paint off a hundred faces. Inside one of the tents, the largest, jugglers threw and lions roared and spangled acrobats flew from one trapeze to the next.
The fair came every summer, and Ruby’s parents always took her and, usually, her older brother, but this year he’d said he was too old for silly fairs. That was just fine with Ruby, who was quite happy to eat his share of candy floss for him.
Bunting flags snapped. A clown smiled at her with wide, painted red lips that looked as sticky as her own felt. Ruby stepped away, behind her mother, and watched a woman catch a tossed ribbon of flame in a bare hand, her grin never wavering with pain.
“Can we go in there?” Ruby asked, pointing behind the fire lady to a long, low tent. “Please?”
“Last year you didn’t want to!” said her mother. “Are you sure you won’t be frightened?”
Ruby huffed. Her brother wasn’t the only one getting older, and this year, the hall of mirrors would not scare her. Clowns were still strange, because they pretended to be something they weren’t, but the mirrors would pretend to be something Ruby wasn’t. She understood the difference now. “I’m positive.”
“Let’s go, then,” said her father cheerfully, finishing the last of his ice cream in a single bite.
It was quiet inside. Quieter, at least, filled with murmurings and footsteps tapping on the temporary wooden floor. And cooler, definitely, away from the sun. Mirrors faced and angled, gleaming away to the end of the tent. Barely one step in and already she could see ten of her and her parents, each reflection showing a different shape and size. This one made the three of them look as if they ate candy floss and ice cream for every meal, that one stretched them taller than even the man who stalked the fair on stilts. Ruby ran from one to another, her face swirling like an oil painting or dripping down into her socks.
“Stay where we can see you,” called her mother, a silly thing to say in a hall of mirrors. Ruby could see herself everywhere.
Here was a room within the tent, just one gap to step through so she was nearly surrounded. Here it really was quiet, a silence that rang in her ears after a day full of sound as loud as the clowns’ bright wigs, lime green and lemon yellow and purple that has no fruit. It wasn’t simply cooler here, it was cold.
Ruby shivered. She approached the first mirror. It showed her laughing, though she knew she wasn’t. In the next, shining tears ran down her face in the silver surface, so real she reached up to touch her cheek, dry and chilled. The following showed her asleep while she was awake, the one after that, dancing as she stood still. She reminded herself that none of this was truly real, it was meant to be just real enough to be strange. Her whisper bounced off the mirrors and back into her ears.
But the last one was real, or so it looked. Good grief, she had chocolate ice cream on her shirt. She wiggled her fingers and the mirror waved back. Ruby stepped toward it, closer, closer.
And stepped right through.
The sun beat down. People were all around. Oops. She hadn’t meant to find the exit, and she’d better run back to find mum and dad before they noticed she was missing. The door, however–for it must have been a door–had swung shut and locked behind her. She didn’t remember seeing the actual door part of the door. All those mirrors had played tricks on her eyes, and the bright, blinding sun wasn’t much better, but all she had to do was walk round the outside of the tent to where she’d gone in with mum and dad.
She went round the whole thing once. And again, more slowly.
“Excuse me,” she said, trying not to let her voice shake. “Do you know where the entrance is?” If she said she was lost, the lady in front of her would take her hand and shout for help, and Ruby wasn’t lost. She couldn’t find the door, that’s all.
The lady gazed at her, a slow smile growing to a grin and then, a shout. But it wasn’t for help.
“We’ve got a Real!”
All the people stopped what they were doing. Ruby felt the weight of a hundred stares, hotter than the sun. “I…I’m sorry? I just need to go into the tent.”
“Why would you want to do that?” asked a man, nearing her. There was something…odd…about his face. Something odd about the expression he wore. “You could stay here with us.”
There was something odd about the way he said it. Ruby looked around.
She had lived in the same town her whole life. Gone to its schools and played in its parks. Watched the sun set over the flat fields surrounding it that, once a year, gave up a few acres for the fair. “Where am I?” she asked, her gaze climbing, climbing, climbing the tall hills all around. This time, her voice did shake.
“The Uncanny Valley, where we so rarely get visitors, and we do so enjoy them.”
He said it the way a person might say they enjoy breakfast. Ruby backed away until her shoulders brushed the silk of the tent.
“I think…I think you have frightened her, Godric,” said the woman Ruby had asked for help. “Have we frightened you? We are sorry, little girl. We just want to learn from you.”
“Learn from me? No, I need to get back inside and find my mum and dad. They’ll be worried.” The tent rippled under her palm.
“They will see you in the mirrors,” said the woman. “To them, you are still there. But really, you are here. Isn’t that clever? And now you can teach us.”
“Teach you what?” demanded Ruby, whose heart was beating like the ringmaster’s drum she’d heard just an hour ago.
“It is easier if we show you. Ingrid! Fetch a bowl and a cloth.”
From the crowd of staring eyes, a girl near enough Ruby’s age stepped forward. She wore a pretty dress and had long, very straight black hair shielding a tanned face. She disappeared into another tent and returned a moment later, carrying the requested items. At Ruby’s feet, she knelt and scrubbed her face, droplets of water splashing the parched grass.
Ruby could back away no further when Ingrid raised her head again, the stained cloth still in her hands. Stained with her face, or what had seemed to be her face. The long hair fell to the ground with a hiss, frizzy curls of purple (that has no fruit) springing up in its place.
“Clown,” Ruby whispered.
“We dislike that word. It is inaccurate,” said the man, Godric. “We are us. But we learn to be you, because you are very amusing. Show us how you walk.”
“How about that thing, you know, where your head explodes, except it doesn’t?”
Ruby was confused enough to consider the question. “Um…?”
“And there’s a hilarious noise?”
“A sneeze?” she asked.
“That’s the one! The last one showed us that.”
There had been others. Others who had come through the door that wasn’t a door. Had they been allowed to return home? Ruby didn’t ask. She didn’t want to hear the answer.
Apparently, however, she didn’t need to. “Don’t worry,” said Ingrid. “We’ll show you the way, but please help us first? We are always trying to get better at our craft. Come, look.”
There were a hundred of them, at least, all in human clothes, with human bodies and human hands, wide red smiles and big red noses hiding under fake human faces. They gathered in a circle around Ruby as she moved slowly away from the tent and into another, where two long rails groaned, one under the weight of dresses and suits and shirts, the other huge striped outfits with buttons the size of dinner plates. Racks of dainty sandals and loafers stood beside boots Ruby could have bathed in. A long table held brushes and more pots of makeup than her mother could buy in a lifetime.
“All this, to pretend to be human?” she asked.
“It takes a lot of work,” said the woman, leading Ruby back outside. The crowd was still there, waiting. Ruby scratched her head and they roared with laughter. Her arm dropped to her side.
She turned in a circle and they clapped.
She bent over to tie her shoelace and a boy about her brother’s age joined her in the circle, copying every motion. After this, they all began to imitate her, a hundred reflections like in the hall of mirrors. They snapped their fingers, stuck out their tongues, danced on the spot an instant after she did, laughing madly all the while. She did everything she could think of, steps from her ballet lessons and karate classes, shouting instructions as if she was playing an enormous game of Simon Says. The boiling sun slid across the valley floor and over the hilltops.
Their faces looked more human in the fading light.
“Teach us how to be sad,” said Ingrid. Her face, still scrubbed clean, wore its enormous red smile.
“I…” began Ruby. She couldn’t teach them that. Sadness was a thing that happened. You were or you weren’t. She frowned.
“Yes, just like that!”
One by one, their painted faces began to twist, slowly, painfully. They closed their eyes in concentration, trying to force their lips downward. It was the saddest thing Ruby had ever seen, but none of them could get it right.
“What about that thing, where water comes from your eyes? The last one did that because he wanted to go back, and we just wanted to keep him a little longer?”
“No!” Ruby shouted. It had all been almost fun, just for a minute, but now it wasn’t anymore. She couldn’t teach them to cry, and she was suddenly near tears herself, because what if they were lying about her parents not knowing she was gone?” “I need to go back, too!” She pushed her way through the crowd, hands grasping at her, clutching at her ice cream-stained shirt as if they could keep part of her for themselves. She ran to the tent, slapping at the rippling silk with her fists. “How do I get in? Tell me! There was a door, there must have been a door!”
A finger touched her shoulder. “I’ll show you,” said Ingrid. “You all want to leave us. This way.”
Ruby stopped and pointed at Ingrid’s face. “That feeling, that is how to be sad,” she said, and she felt a little happier, despite everything, that she had taught Ingrid this. But not happy enough to stay. When Ingrid parted a section of curtain and revealed the mirrors beyond, Ruby ran inside.
“Find the mirror that is truly you and step through it,” said Ingrid. Ruby ran back and forth, heart hammering, lost in her own twisted reflections. After what was surely far too long, she moved in front of one, ice cream stains and a pale, frightened face.
“There you are!” said her father cheerfully. “We thought we’d lost you for a moment. Are we finished here? Would you like a hot dog?”
Ruby felt a tiny bit sick. “No, thank you. Can we go home now?”
On the way back to the car, she heard her mother saying she’d known Ruby would be frightened by the mirrors, her father saying it didn’t hurt to be a bit scared sometimes. It was a relief to get home, where she could change her shirt and play with the dog and watch television after supper.
Human things. Human things the not-clowns couldn’t do.
The sun set, as it had done in the Uncanny Valley, and Ruby was sent to put on her pajamas, brush her teeth and hair, wash her face. She leaned over the sink, scrubbing away the last sticky traces of candy floss, and raised her head to look in the mirror.
A bone-white face and wide red lips faced her. A single frizzy curl, as bright as her name, fell into the sink and washed away.