Small Passengers by JL George

A bead of sweat rolled down Carey’s forehead as the tattoo needle buzzed over their skin. Sitting in the front window of the shop felt like being a bug under a magnifying glass wielded by some giant, careless child. This close to midday, the shadows of the lower city huddled tight beneath the crowded buildings as though they themselves were trying to shelter from the heat. The drains needed fixing and a wave of their sun-warmed stink wafted inside each time someone opened the door.

Not for the first time, Carey thought bitterly of the upper city with its manicured clouds and controlled temperatures, a whole battalion of weather-tamers pouring their essence into keeping the place not just bearable, but pleasant. Carey’s shirt clung, sweat-clagged, to their back and armpits, and the sting of the needle, like a thousand tiny cat-scratches, had grown progressively less bearable as the hours wore on. Their jaw ached from the effort of not showing it. They made a face, wiggling it from side to side in an effort to unclench.

Only a little longer. Finish this job, do the transfer, get paid, and they’d have enough to cover the month’s rent. That was as good as things ever got.

“You gonna be done sometime today?” The client waiting for his transfer—a shaven-headed, bull-necked guy of around forty, whose t-shirt tan gave way to pasty white when his sleeves rode up—leaned forward to inspect the image taking shape on the fleshy expanse of Carey’s thigh.

This one was a busty mermaid, the scales of her tail filled in bright blue and green. Carey’s first of the day had been a pudgy elephant modelled after an illustration from a kids’ book, followed by a butterfly for the shoulder of a young woman spending her first wage packet. She’d dithered for long moments over whether to have it inked direct before deciding to pay the extra for a transfer.

The places where both images had been inked still ached, just starting to scab over. It would be weeks before they healed enough to tattoo on again. Carey would have to switch to the other thigh if any more transfer clients came in today, and then to other, harder-to-reach places.

The soreness and itching bothered Carey less than the fact of going home at the end of the day with nothing to show for their discomfort. They daydreamed, sometimes, of covering their own limbs with pictures—curling vines and bright-hued insects and a whole jungle of different animals—but then there would be no space for their clients, so their skin remained a blank canvas. A little redness, a few scabs: the ghosts of the small passengers they carried so briefly for others.

Occasionally, Carey thought about doing something else with their abilities. Their mother always said they were daft for focussing all their essence on art, not healing or weather-taming or something else that might lead to a cushy upper-city job. But as a child, they’d loved drawing, and had gazed at the living murals that adorned the upper city’s walls and longed to make their own.

Later, they’d learned that no artist truly got the freedom to put their own stamp on the walls. Proposals were strictly monitored, and competition for the coveted spots was fierce. Carey had interviewed, once, but fumbled it badly, unable to sound convincingly as though they belonged in the upper city.

They’d come to resent the murals—carefully calibrated to the tastes of the upper city and looking down on everybody else. They told themself that they didn’t want to be part of that anyway. That at least here, they were giving something meaningful to their clients.

Days like this, it was hard to believe.

“Ten minutes, give or take,” they told the waiting customer. He grunted and sat back in his chair, and Carey paused to wipe their forehead before bending back over the mermaid.

Their head was throbbing by the time it was done. A few more minutes, and they could head out to the cool, dark back of the shop and wash down some painkillers with a gulp of cold pop.

But the hardest part came first. Carey beckoned to T-shirt Tan, who got to his feet with a snort that conveyed, About time, too. He wouldn’t be a generous tipper, Carey could already tell.

They pushed that annoyance from their mind and concentrated on the mermaid tattoo.

First, they traced the outlines of the image with their mind and imagined it three-dimensional and touchable, the sinuous curl of the mermaid’s tail unfurling with slow grace, her hair swaying with the push-pull of an imaginary tide. They focused their attention to one pinprick-sharp point and pushed a tendril of their essence into the mermaid.

Nothing. T-shirt Tan cleared his throat. Carey could feel him getting ready to grumble.

The mermaid’s tail twitched. She blinked jewel-blue eyes.

Carey held out a hand. T-shirt Tan looked at it and Carey wiggled their fingers impatiently. “Needs skin contact to work. You won’t catch anything, promise.”

It would’ve been quicker to get him to touch the skin nearest the image, but Carey had long since given up trying to explain that to clients. They were weird about it in ways that made little practical sense.

T-shirt Tan slid a reluctant hand into Carey’s, and they remembered, belatedly, that their hands were sweaty and they should probably have wiped off first.

Oh, well. They poured their concentration into the mermaid and she wriggled again—once, twice, as though figuring out how to move—and began to swim.

With undulating movements, she made her way up Carey’s thigh, beneath the hem of their underwear and out the sleeve of their t-shirt. Down their arm, tickling at the crook of their elbow, and finally across their linked fingers to find a home on T-shirt Tan’s bicep.

Despite himself, T-shirt Tan smiled. People usually did.

As Carey took his money, he cleared his throat, not meeting their eyes. “My mate Mike said he might try this place if I liked it,” he said. “Just, if he does—tell him I had it inked direct, yeah?”

Funny. Even down here, in the lower city, those who had a bit of money paid for those who didn’t to take on discomfort and pain so they didn’t have to. The dynamics between upper and lower city replicated themselves in microcosm. The upper city kept itself cool and left the lower city to swelter. Some of those up there even bought essence from desperate lower city-dwellers, draining every drop of their magic just to make their own lives a little easier.

But people in the upper city would never admit to buying essence. Always claimed it was inborn, as though that made the easy life rightfully theirs. And down here…

T-shirt Tan was scowling now, casting a nervous glance up at Carey’s face.

“Sure,” they told him, and took his money.

T-shirt Tan left, chest puffed out. Carey stuffed his money into the till and sighed.

There was a lull after lunch. Anyone who could avoid going out in the broiling sun had done the sensible thing and kept to the shade. Carey watched the shadows lengthen through the shop’s front window, fanning themself with a flyer as a stray cat sniffed around the rubbish out front.

Ed, who owned the shop, yawned behind the counter, rune-patterned arms stretching above his head until his wrists cracked. He flipped open the appointments book at today’s page. “Nothing else booked in. Might shut up shop for the day.”

Carey scratched absently at a sore patch on their upper thigh and forced themself to stop. Going home would mean missing out on any walk-in clients, and they could use the extra money, but with the lower city baking like a brick in a kiln, there wasn’t much chance of passing trade. “Fair enough.”

The door opened. The bell hanging from the ceiling had lost its chime so it gave a hollow clank every time someone entered. The girl who’d walked in came to a startled halt at the sound, eyes darting upward.

She was skinny and her trousers didn’t fit right, held up around her waist by a fraying canvas belt. Her eyes were big and dark and wounded: Carey thought of a dog in a cage. She kept her hands tucked up inside the too-long sleeves of her jacket, fingers fisted in the worn fabric.

Not exactly a typical client. Even by lower-city standards, she looked broke, not like someone who could afford to spend their hard-earned cash on adornments.

“You lost, love?” Ed asked, not unkindly. She could’ve just been looking for somewhere to hang around until the worst of the heat had faded. He’d probably give her a drink and a chair in the shade and ask nothing for it.

The girl shook her head, but said nothing else.

“All right,” said Ed. “So… you’re here to get tattooed?”

Her only reply was a curt nod.

Ed was a talker. He preferred to sit and chat about nothing as he worked, batting words back and forth to keep his mind off the sting of the needle. Or the client’s mind, if they couldn’t afford to pay for a transfer.

He looked over to Carey. “You mind taking this one? I’ll leave the keys for you to lock up.”

Carey shrugged, tried not to look too eager for the extra cash. “Fine by me.”

With Ed out of the shop, the girl seemed to relax a fraction, a tightness easing out of her shoulders. Maybe she was one of those people who were uneasy around men, or maybe she was as uncomfortable with Ed’s chatter as he had been with her silence.

Carey gestured for her to sit. “You got a name?”

The girl seemed to consider her answer, then lifted her chin. “Lily.”

“Lily,” they repeated. It suited her. There was a touch of the funereal in her somber demeanor and downcast eyes. “Well, Lily, d’you know what you’re looking for?”

In answer, Lily pulled up her right sleeve.

Carey sucked in a breath through their teeth.

The band of skin around her wrist was the puckered, unhealthy grey of someone who’d been drained of essence. The process left a physical mark where the subject had been touched—and people were different, afterward. Quieter, less confident. Like ghosts of themselves. You had to be desperate to sell your essence. The people Carey knew who’d done it had been sick, or addicts, or on the verge of eviction.

They bit back the urge to ask why, or to offer unasked-for sympathy. Lily looked them in the eye, the faintest flicker of a challenge in her gaze. Say you’re sorry, it seemed to say, see how stupid it sounds.

“What are you thinking?” Carey asked, instead. Their fingers hovered an inch above the discolored flesh. It would feel like scar tissue to the touch, they thought, soft and ridged.

“A bird,” Lily said. “Just the one to start.” She reached deep into her pocket and produced a grubby handful of paper money. Enough to pay for a simple flash design, no more. Definitely not enough for a transfer, but the greyed skin looked so delicate and the thought of inking directly onto it made Carey feel, absurdly, guilty.

They thought of T-shirt Tan again. All the hours and sweat and pain they’d spent on transfers for people who wanted to look cool in front of their mates. And of the murals that danced across the upper city’s walls, and all the cruelty that lay behind them.

“I can do a transfer,” they heard themself say. “On the house.”

Lily blinked at them.

“It’s where I ink it on myself, and—”

“I know,” she said, and set her jaw. “But no. I want to feel it.”

Carey swallowed. “All right.”

Once they’d got into the rhythm of their work, it was easy enough. The bird was a small, sharp outline with spread wings, as though silhouetted against the sun. Filling it in was harder. Lily gritted her teeth as they worked, sweat shining on her face as the shadows lengthened outside. She was good at hiding it, keeping quiet, but Carey had been doing this long enough to know the tensed-up muscles of a body in pain, and to see the relief in the way she exhaled afterward and her whole body went loose like an emptied paper bag.

“Good?” they asked, inspecting their handiwork.

Lily turned her wrist one way and the other, flexing her fingers. The movement pulled at the skin and made it seem as though the bird’s wings were moving the tiniest bit, adjusting with the currents of a non-existent breeze. Her expression softened as she studied the image, her lips parting. It struck Carey how very young she was.

Carey leaned forward, inspecting the tattoo. “Can I try something?”

“Yes,” Lily said.

Eyes narrowing in concentration, Carey reached out with their mind, pushing a tendril of their essence into the image of the bird.

They meant only to bring it to life, however briefly. To give Lily a moment’s delight.

Instead, their essence met something hot and bright and living. They blinked and stepped back, hand dropping to their side.

Carey knew essence when they felt it. It had only been the faintest drop—the residue left behind in a jar scraped clean, not worth the bother of finding a spoon. But it was there. Whoever had drained Lily hadn’t completed the job.

“What’s wrong?” Lily frowned up at them, a worried furrow appearing between her pale brows.

“Nothing,” Carey said, and reached for her again. This time, they laid their hand atop hers and linked them together. The sweat between her fingers was faintly sticky in the afternoon heat. “Concentrate. With me.”

Their essence twined round Lily’s in a slow, guiding motion. An unbearably delicate operation, like coaxing a flame from embers with your breath and trying not to blow it out. There was a buried heat, barely there—and then a flare of warmth and power that made them gasp. It was dizzying and comforting both at once, a balm to all those empty, aching spaces.

Lily’s eyes went wide and round. For a moment it seemed she’d forgotten to breathe.

“You can do it,” Carey said, with a gentle nudge. They felt an unexpected buoyancy as they handed control to Lily, like a boat bobbing as its passengers disembarked. “It’s yours.”

Slowly, they withdrew, leaving Lily staring at the bird on her wrist.

Its wings began to move.

JL George (she/they) was born in Cardiff and raised in Torfaen. Her fiction has won a New Welsh Writing Award, the International Rubery Book Award, and been shortlisted for the Rhys Davies Short Story Competition. In previous lives, she wrote a PhD on the classic weird tale and played in a glam rock band. Connect on Bluesky.