Science Fiction & Fantasy

IntheNightWood-Banner_Final_Lightspeed Oct 2018

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Fiction

You Pretend Like You Never Met Me, and I’ll Pretend Like I Never Met You

The worst day of Wells the Magician’s life begins pleasantly enough, with a shot of whiskey at the Lost Kingdom bar. It’s a birthday party day, and as all low-rent magic men know, birthday party days begin with booze and move laterally through coffee, cake, and whichever divorcee can be convinced to unhook her bra, whether offsite or in a back bedroom. Onward from there into (dire case) helium, (better case) weed, or (best case) coke, followed by a three a.m. cigarette before the road gets hit.

There are protocols in place.

At nine in the morning on this Saturday, with four hours to kill before he performs magic tricks at a fifth birthday party in a gated subdivision, Wells has three bourbons, neat, and one platter of fries, messy. Mayo. Ketchup. Hot sauce. Grape jam packets. Mustard. Maple syrup. Side of nacho cheese. Like that. He takes his time, stealth-assessing the woman in the back of the bar. She’s wearing a pair of too-small, heart-shaped, red plastic sunglasses, and at 10:15, Wells decides his next fifty years belong to her.

He formally signals the bartender.

“A round to woo the woe in the last row,” he says, pleased with himself.

“Not a move, bro. She’s been here five days,” the bartender says. “Leaves for two hours while Jake or I clean, gets back in the booth. Stays there, staring. You know I don’t judge my regulars, but something’s wrong with that one. Trust me when I say there’s no good version of getting her drunker.”

“Coffee, then?” says Wells, angling his head to get a better look. She’s maybe thirty, dark hair cut jagged, punk rock shifted into something else. He can’t tell if there’s a ring, but he likes them crazy enough that his occupation tempts rather than warns. There might be time for a bang before the birthday. He does the math. Definitely, if they walk out of here by 11:30.

The bartender shakes his head. “PG Tips. She’s a Brit.”

“Do it up,” Wells says, and waits for the kettle to boil, checking his bag of tricks while he does.

The tricks are in need of a dry cleaner and a few prayers, but it doesn’t matter. Five-year-olds believe in magic. Balloon animals and endless scarves, bubbles, cake. Kids this age hate card tricks, so he doesn’t bother. Coins, yes. Rabbits, yes, though Wells hasn’t got any at present. His most recent ex-wife, Amanda, shouted “Born Free!” as she walked away with their cage. The trick bag is an inheritance from Wells’s dad, who was an all-sorts magic man. Wells spent his childhood on the assist. An apple on his head, an arrow, a knife, Wells done up in sparkles, transformed into a sequined specialist. They drove a beat-to-shit minivan gig to gig, Wells playing the role of the magician’s glitz, followed by naps beneath gambling tables.

When Wells was fourteen, his dad got stabbed in Reno, outside a casino he was fleecing. Wells should have gotten stabbed, too, but the someone doing the stabbing just glanced at him, and bent back over Wells’s dad.

“Just need to fetch something for the boss,” said the stabber. “Don’t mind me.”

There was no blood, just sorting, like someone rooting in a sock drawer.

“Okay,” said Wells. His spine felt frozen and his guts were roiling, and the person he was talking to had eyes without whites. If this was a magic trick, it wasn’t the kind he knew the combination for, and if it was actual magic, he wanted nothing to do with it.

The stabber nodded, and continued to rummage.

Finally, they muttered, “Not there, is it? No. Bounced checks and bad bets. Selling things you don’t own. Not one thing, it’s another.”

They looked up at Wells again. “No kid was supposed to be here. It’s your lucky day. You pretend like you never met me, I’ll pretend like I never met you,” they said.

Wells caught a glimpse of claws and an additional glimpse of horns, but Wells was like that back then. He saw spectacle everywhere. When Wells nodded, the stabber disappeared without the aid of smoke and mirrors.

Wells picked his dad’s tricks up off the sidewalk, stood, and walked away. Told the police he’d missed the murder. Told the casino he didn’t know who did it and that he wasn’t pursuing it. Told the driver who picked him up hitchhiking that he’d been traveling alone for a year, and that he was looking to get his ass to Tahoe. A few other things happened, soon after that. Wells decided to deny them, too. Pretend like you never met me, he thought, and moved on, town to town for thirty years.

Lately, he’s been haunting Boise, Idaho. He’s learned how to say the name of the place, the “sea” instead of “zee,” and so people think he’s local enough to last.

Every day, Wells puts on the cheapo tux and the clip-on polka-dot tie, polishes the shoes. A hundred bucks and wine coolers in the kitchen with the moms, who will be, if experience is any guide, thirsty. Wells checks the bag for candy. Quality lollipops will make true believers out of most people. He steals a glance at the woman in the back booth. She’s got a notebook out and she’s scribbling something in it. She looks testy. It’s 10:32.

Wells nudges the bartender. He can see steam. Good enough. The bartender pours water into the mug. Wells adds a teabag and dunks it frantically. The woman takes off her sunglasses. There’s an expression on her face Wells doesn’t entirely like, but her blue eyes are visible from here, along with mascara that’s made its way from lashes to ashes, dust to destiny.

He’s a sucker for messes like this one.

“You cunt,” the woman comments, unsolicited from just behind him as he’s reaching for the milk. “The water must be boiling, or the tea will be weak. And the teabag must be added before the water.”

Wells turns his head and takes the opportunity to examine her. Thirty-five, chewed lipstick, and there might be blood on the sleeve of her dress, which also seems to be a nightgown, but who’s counting flaws? Wells is on the north side of forty, and some of his tattoos are starting to look like cancer. The ones he got more recently pop like goldfish from a carnival bowl, and those are the ones that matter. He flexes the bicep closest to her.

He considers a coin trick. He could pull one from her clenched fist. What kind of coin, though? He never knows what the bag will give him. Soon after his dad died, he found a pile of peep show tokens in the bottom, and took his miserable self to see some sparkle. Sometimes, he drops his hand in just to see what kind of currency he touches, and then plans his life accordingly.

This time, he gets a wooden nickel, and ignores it.

“The. Water. Must. Be. Boiling,” the woman repeats. “Otherwise, things end up useless.”

Wells pours milk, being helpful, but she unexpectedly slaps the mug, and overturns it. Warmish tea drips into Wells’ lap.

“You don’t add the milk until the tea’s had time to steep,” she says. “It takes longer than you think. Particularly if the bloody water wasn’t even boiling in the first place.” She makes a moan that is closer to a sob. “I can’t bear America.”

“I’ll buy you a better cuppa,” Wells says. “It’s on me.”

Her dress is torn, yes, and possibly stained, but it’s flowered. Her cheeks are rosy. English rosy. He envisions something he saw on the BBC, in the dead of night between divorces, a flushed woman in a flowered gown, corset unlaced. Blowsy, he thinks. Yes, a wedding ring. No problem. The stones are turned toward her palm.

Cuppa?” she says, and her tone is ominous. “BBC, isn’t it. Butlers. That’s the accent you’re using. You’re mangling it. Were you any sort of butler, you’d know how to make a proper pot of tea.”

She plucks a cocktail straw from the backbar, and fracks his drink to the dregs.

“I can fix it,” Wells tries. “I’m a magician.”

She mishears him, probably on purpose. “No. There’s no medicine for this.”

She fishes the teabag out of her empty mug, shoves it in his open mouth, and walks toward the door.

“You’ll be driving, then,” she says, over her shoulder.

One problem Wells the Magician has always had? He loves damage.

Wells chews the teabag for sobriety, tasting black leaves like a terrible fortune, drops a twenty from the tricksack on the bar and follows her. He feels himself getting hard.

“Bro, no,” the bartender calls after him. “That’s a no go. I’d watch out for her.”

“You don’t know me,” says Wells. “This is my whole thing.”

• • • •

In the lot, there is only one vehicle, and she’s standing beside it, tapping her foot.

“Nice car,” she says. “If car’s what you call this.”

Wells’s car is a literal lemon. It’s a VW bug, painted canary and dimpled with dots made by, Wells suspects, a ball peen hammer. It was part of the flotsam from a foreclosed lemonade stand, and cost four hundred dollars. When Wells took possession of the car after the auction, he opened the trunk and a compressed lemon mascot suit popped out, nearly giving him a heart attack. Also included in the sale were seventeen hundred hollow plastic lemon sippy cups, three hundred and seventy-eight insulated thermal lemons, and forty-five flammable velveteen novelty lemon pillows, each emblazoned with the name and disconnected phone number of the lemonade stand’s former owner. They filled the entire interior. Wells went to the dump and gave everything over but the lemon suit, which he kept, just in case. He’s pretty sure it’s rated for cold, and his last wife ($299 divorce, cheaper than the car) took his camping gear when she went rogue.

Wells isn’t a whimsical man—no magician is—but he could see the utility of a vehicle like this: it is so noticeable that no police officer would imagine its driver committing crimes while behind the wheel. Wells is essentially invisible inside its yellow shell, and whether he speeds, drinks, or drugs his way through an evening, he trusts that no one believes their eyes.

The lemon sticks when he drives it, but he’s had the side painted with his logo nonetheless. Wells the Magician it says, in calligraphy, with a picture of a top hat and a clutter of stars.

The woman’s hand is on the hood, and her nightgown is the shortie kind. Wells feels optimistic.

“My house is seven minutes away.”

“Wishes, horses, beggars,” she says, wrests open the passenger door, gets in, and waits. Right, then. Usually he sprints under the red flags of feminine vigilance. He inherited charm from his mother. Women have always been willing to sleep with him, no matter the evidence he’s nothing good. There’s still time.

He takes the address the woman gives him.

He’s not sober. She’s not sober either. Whatever. Wells has a shortlist of ways he’s willing to die. He imagines everyone does. Sometimes you manage to hit a Venn diagram of death wishes in a one-night stand. There should be a dating app to match methods. He laughs as he puts the lemon into gear. She looks at him. He stops laughing.

He drives out from the bar and into the country, half a silent hour in the general direction of nowhere. At last, she points.

“There.”

A Victorian mansion, all gingerbread and gilding, creamy turrets, stained glass windows. She doesn’t look like she belongs to a place like this, but goes to show. Wells is midway up the walk behind her when he sees the sign: Nix & Sons, Funeral Home.

“Hang on,” he says.

She turns around and looks at him.

“What? This isn’t what you were hoping for? Most things aren’t,” she says.

She walks into the mansion, shutting the door behind her.

It’s suddenly 12:15. Wells gets back into the lemon and opens his glovebox kit to brush the bourbon out of his breath, swab his face with a wipe, and slick his hair into top hat formation. Bag of tricks intact. He fishes for a coin, just to see. A silver dollar might bode well, but there’s nothing. He takes a few minutes to stabilize. Win some. Lose most. This is the life of a hack magician, a man whom true magic has not bothered with. Wells’s father could do anything. He’d disappear in the middle of a crowded room, drive a car while sitting in the backseat. Once, he floated stark naked over an entire casino, looking over shoulders and reading hidden hands, while Wells kept watch over his tux.

Where’d he get his magic? He made some jokes about soul sales. Sometimes, when he’s not thinking about the thing he agreed to forget, Wells wonders who is ever kidding about anything.

“Dirt cheap,” his dad said once of his immortal soul, as he was cleaning up a hotel room full of pantyhose, beer bottles, baubles, and Bibles never opened. “Never was anything but shirt deep.”

Wells was twelve years old at the time, drinking a Jolt Cola and trying to learn how to make girls appear out of thin air. It didn’t work if you didn’t have any willing and around to begin with. He’s still never learned.

As he pulls out of the lot, Wells catches sight of the woman emerging onto the porch with an enormous floral arrangement. She’s changed into a black dress. He raises his hand to wave, then thinks better of it, but she waves to him. No, that’s a finger in the air. Alright then, leave it.

She’s filled Wells’s car with the smells of new sweat and old perfume. She’s nothing special, not a ghost, not a queen, just his usual kind of trouble. An Amanda or a Bridget or, god help him, a Sonja. He doesn’t even know her name.

She walks down the steps with a driver and gets into the passenger seat of a hearse. Wells shudders as the coffin mobile pulls out.

Wells, in classic Wells fashion, has definitely hit on a newly-minted widow.

He rolls down his windows and ushers awkwardness out. Awkwardness is the enemy of magic. He follows the hearse decisively out onto the highway, thinking to flee, but finds himself idiotically part of a long procession of black sedans interspersed with black motorcycles. Wells is appalled by the rudeness of bikers invading a funeral procession, but then . . .

The riders are wearing black suits, and Wells is the lone lemon in an all-mourner motorcade. A man with a long white beard turns his head as he passes, and gives Wells a look that says he’s broken all laws of civility. The biker has stars tattooed across his face, and his eyes are pink from weeping.

Wells is reminded of the last rabbit he had, a hostile albino lop named Richard. He glances at the rabbit’s top hat, sitting for now in the backseat. He’s visited by a vision of the woman wearing it and drinking a perfectly made mug of tea. Her ring is turned the right way round, but it’s not the ring she was wearing. It’s his own mother’s ring, the one he hasn’t ever presented to a wife, though he’s had two so far. Wells spent his entire childhood traveling with his dad, leaving his mother behind. He only has his mom’s wedding ring because she took it off one morning when he was eleven, left it in an eggcup, and walked. Years ago he dropped it into the bag of tricks, and he hasn’t seen it since.

He pulls over and lets the funeral procession pass. Trying to save a pretty woman from preexisting problems is not any kind of plan. Maybe one of the mothers at the birthday will be plausible. He considers himself in the rearview. Not too shabby. Or, at least, no shabbier than usual.

“The water must be boiling,” he says. He says it louder. “THE WATER MUST BE BOILING OR THE TEA WILL BE WEAK.”

Wells pulls off the highway entirely, and steps on the gas.

• • • •

There’s a trail of colorful balloons, and cheerful printed signs guiding civilians to Ammy’s birthday.

This seems wrong. Wells checks his contract.

He isn’t the only one having an off day. The parents have misspelled their own daughter’s name. He pulls up to the house, and—how late is he? Parents look shitfaced. He checks his watch. No, he’s fine. There are people teetering their way around the premises, though, and in the kitchen they’re slumped over salsa. Two are chainsmoking. A few more are crying. Screw that, Wells thinks. He congratulates himself again on his vasectomy, undisclosed to his wives, who thought they were the problem. Parents sometimes punch magicians in the head for no reason. Wells stays on guard.

He scans the crowd for Ammy, and finds her, plastic-crowned and pink-frocked, her expression that of a kid about to vomit or tantrum.

Wells reconsiders this party. It’s October, and it’s fifty-one degrees. The swimming pool is open, and Wells has no doubt that he’ll soon find himself in the water, rescuing a kid from drowning. He takes a step back. They haven’t seen him yet. He still has time. Just a minor magic trick involving illusion and he’ll be out—

But Ammy’s got him around the knees. She’s glaring up at him, a freckled kid with the eyebrows of a seventy-year-old man.

“Are you the magician?” she asks. “You don’t look like you know magic.”

“Are you Amy?” he asks. “You don’t look like you know magic either.”

“Ammy,” she says, and curls her lip. Of course she is.

“DOES HE KNOW MAGIC?” she screams, startling him.

“He doesn’t,” says another kid. “He’s a dummy.”

“DUMMY!” shout four at once.

Wells brings an emergency wand from behind his back and does a trick involving a bouquet of flowers appearing out of thin air. The kids give no fucks. He transforms the flowers into vending machine slugs, because that’s what the bag offers him. The kids origami themselves down into a pointed-knee circle. They’re still grim, but he’s bought himself three minutes. He glances furtively at the parents. They seem to be heading toward a miserable key party. There’s hugging where there shouldn’t be hugging. Embraces are lasting too long.

He waves his wand and makes the slugs into a series of sparkly explosions.

There is the opposite of applause. One of the kids starts up the kind of whimper that’s contagious, and it’s only a matter of time. Well brings out the top hat, and pulls from it a lifelike rabbit puppet, which usually goes over incredibly well. It’s not Richard the Rabbit, but it’s something.

The voice of a dad carries from the house. “I mean how does this happen? How does she let it happen?”

A mom joins in. “And him? What was he thinking? How do you—No, I can’t even.”

Wells fumbles for lollies. He’s half-buried in the bag of tricks, closing his fist around what feels like a gold bar, when his day officially dives into the shitter.

“MAGICIAN, LISTEN,” Ammy says, and it’s an order. “Mica was on a motorcycle with his daddy.”

“The road was slippery,” says another kid. “It was raining.”

“Now, Mica’s over there,” says a third kid.

Wells looks slowly up from the lollipops. The kids are pointing into the distance, down the highway, and Wells knows exactly where they’re pointing. He can imagine what’s happening in that cemetery right now, bikers, little coffin, flowers, and the woman from the bar standing beside the grave in her black dress and heart-shaped sunglasses, having spent days in shock, having not changed her clothes since the accident, and he, Wells, couldn’t even get the water hot. He couldn’t get the tea into the water. He couldn’t get the milk into the tea.

“The hospital tried to fix him, but they couldn’t,” says Ammy.

How can a five-year-old have him by the collar? The children inch closer. Wells has become a sacrifice in the middle of a ring of tiny witches.

“They couldn’t fix him,” the children repeat, mimicking someone else, their teacher, or a parent. “Mica died.”

“Did Mica’s dad die too?” he asks, stalling.

“He only got hurt,” says Ammy, and visibly seethes.

Something is pushed into his hand. It’s a drawing in crayon. A little boy, a mother in a flowered dress, and a man on a motorcycle.

“Do the magic,” Ammy demands. “DO THE MAGIC.”

“Which magic?” he asks. He shouldn’t ask. He knows.

“Make Mica alive again,” she says.

The rest nod, like bringing someone back to life is a matter of cups and balls, a cabinet, and a wand wave.

No one is crying. Everyone believes. The mob of kindergarteners stares at Wells the Magician, he of no skills, he of two divorces and one VW lemon, a forty-five-year-old failure, charged with raising the dead, and Wells stares back, frozen.

This is the truth of the matter: Wells’s dad probably could’ve done this. Whoever his deal was with, a devil or a god, Wells’s dad was the real thing, and Wells is not.

For example: A few days after Wells left his dad’s body in Reno, there was an incident in the night kitchen of a diner, a smashed cockroach, and Wells, on his knees, trying to steal hamburger buns.

Wells touched the roach and said a word he’d heard his dad say, and the roach shook itself and looked up at him, abruptly unsmashed. It spread its antennae, and skittered off into the space behind the range. Wells wasn’t sure. Maybe this was a thing cockroaches could do.

He tried again and again, for years, delicately, roadkill raccoon, nest-fallen songbird, frozen squirrel, but nothing.

Maybe it had been the last remnant of his father’s magic, still hanging out nearby. No real magic has come out of him since.

Still, he finds himself lifting his mail-order wand, to attempt what, exactly? Just as he’s about to make the horrific choice of chanting some sorcery-sounding gibberish, a mother comes out singing, candles lit, cake balanced, and the kids turn away from life and death, and toward sugar, leaving Wells, thank fuck, to tend to his own self.

He stands at the edge of the pool, away from the party, panting. Magic requires leaps of faith. It’s been decades since he’s leapt, and the same since he’s been faithful. He has no paper sack to breathe into, so he uses his bag of tricks. There’s no gold bar in there. He sees some ripped up old Italian lire. Not even valid currency.

When Ammy blows the candles out, though, he’s hit by a gust of wish. He takes a stumbling step backward, and finds himself floating on air.

No. Not floating. Falling.

Wand, tuxedo, top hat, puppet rabbits and all, baptized. He’s a teabag in lukewarm, chest-deep water, the dried remnants of his heart filtering pitifully, weakly, through the pool.

He struggles out of the water, drags himself to the lemon, and takes the long way back to town, making sure not to pass the cemetery. Two wet puppet rabbits seem to be glaring at him from the passenger seat. One of them has bright red around its mouth. He starts to pull over in a panic, but no, it’s only melted lollipop.

“This is not your fault, Wells,” he tells the car, the air, himself. “None of this is your fault.”

Back at the Last Kingdom he orders three more bourbons, even though he slunk off from the party without getting paid. The bartending shift has changed, there is that mercy, and so when the bartender lines up his drinks, no one’s counting.

He doesn’t want to be a magician. He wants to be something and someone else.

Wells unfolds the damp crayon drawing from his pocket and spreads it on the bar. A little boy, a mother, and a father on a motorcycle.

As Wells squints at the paper, the motorcycle turns into a wheelchair. The little boy disappears. The mother stands up, looking literal daggers at the father, and a Crayola man in a top hat and a tuxedo walks into the picture and adds himself to the family. Wells crumples the paper as fast as paper can be crumpled. He isn’t doing this magic trick. Whoever is, bourbon or bad day, it’s not funny.

One drink later, he un-crumples and smooths it.

The man in the tuxedo reaches out his arms, the mother falls into them, and the father wheels his chair off the paper. Lightning jags from the sky, a gold scrawl, and the magician holds it in his hands—

Something clatters. Wells looks down and sees his car keys on the ground. The figures on the paper aren’t moving. There is no such thing as magic. He shifts to the back booth.

When he opens his eyes sometime later, the neon is blazing, and the line to get a drink at the Lost Kingdom is four deep. The windows are fogged over. Wells wonders if he’s dead.

He looks to his left and sees a bearded face tattooed with stars, a pair of pink-rimmed rabbit eyes peering down at him.

“Richard?” he says. This is not the man’s name, but a long-gone rabbit’s name is the only name Wells can remember.

“It’s the lemon,” says the biker. “It’s the fucking lemon who thought he was a comedian.”

“I’m not a comedian,” Wells protests. “I’m a magician. See?”

He pulls an ancient coin from out of Richard’s beard, and then rains subway tokens from Richard’s ears for good measure.

Richard levitates Wells as easily as plucking a lop from a top hat. He’s massive, dressed all in black leather, and Wells looks down on the Lost Kingdom from an unpleasant height.

“Caro,” Richard yells. “Is this fuckshow someone from Kenny’s family? If not, I’m dropping him in the dumpster.”

Wells dangles, inhaling the sickly scent of lilies. There’s a funeral arrangement draped over a table, on which there is a giant photo of a little boy, grinning in a pair of heart-shaped sunglasses. A woman Wells knows is at the table, too, hunched over a steaming cup, mascara striping her face like warpaint.

“Drop him,” she says.

Wells plummets. He makes it to his hands and knees and crawls toward her feet. Black heels. A fresh tattoo on her calf of a mother and a son, the two of them holding hands and facing the universe. Both figures are oozing blood.

He looks up, and she’s looking down at him. Blue eyes. Rosy cheeks. Hair cut with a dull knife. She’s the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen.

“You again,” she says.

“I can bring him back,” he hears himself say. “I can bring Mica back from the dead. I’m a magician.”

Her fist approaches him formally, and he feels his nose bend like a spoon. There’s a tsunami of tattooed biceps and rolled-up shirtsleeves from the room at large. A bottle breaks. Wells’s skull is made of glass, and inside it, there is a spark like a penny becoming electric.

Wells glows for a few seconds, but the light goes out. High heels click past his face. There’s the sound of revving and roaring, and over all of that, her voice ringing out from the parking lot.

“FUCK THIS!” she shouts. “FUCK MOTORCYCLES! FUCK NIGHT! FUCK DEATH!”

“Caro,” someone says.

“FUCK YOU!” she screams. “GET AWAY FROM ME! PRETEND YOU NEVER MET ME!”

Wells walks backward into the dark until he’s underneath the universe and safely flat, invisible.

• • • •

The dayshift bartender scrapes the dropped magician off the floor and hands him a bag of frozen tater tots for his face. The bar’s empty. Wells is sopping. Maybe they poured their drinks out as they went past.

“I told you to watch out for her,” the bartender says. “Don’t think you’re driving like this, Wells. Cold front came in. Whole road’s made of ice.”

The bartender sets a mug of burnt coffee down in front of Wells, who drinks it. He eats an order of tots, and then walks shivering into five a.m., his tux freezing to his skin. All of this feels like basic destiny.

Wells opens the VW’s trunk, and strips down to his rubber-chicken printed boxers in the glow of the Lost Kingdom sign. The lemon mascot suit is made of shaggy yellow fur and is fleece-lined. Its legs are mysteriously thermal. There’s no explaining why a summer suit was constructed this way. It has a pointy hood, decorated with green leaves. Wells zips himself in, and puts his boots back on. Snow’s falling like cheapola confetti.

Wells drives the lemon to a 7-11 and buys a thermos.

While he stands at the beverage station, staunching his nose with his dad’s scarf trick and waiting a thousand years for the kettle on the hotplate to boil, he thinks about performing with his father, thirty years ago, posing in front of a glittering backdrop, his dad throwing a knife at his heart, and the oohs from the crowd as the knife diverted midair and stung the ceiling. His dad, grinning and bowing. Mustache. Top hat. Magic.

Every once in a while, the knife would go a little way in, and every once in a while, Wells would wake up with a Band-Aid under his t-shirt. Just once, something went wronger than usual and Wells woke up frozen, wristbanded, on a gurney. His dad pushed the gurney out of the basement of the hospital, and there was Wells, alive again.

“Sorry about that, buddy,” said his dad, and laughed. “Overkill.”

Wells laughed too, but he wasn’t sure what he was laughing about, the “buddy,” never a word his dad would use, or the pun, classic magician patter.

“Done with that business,” his dad said, and thumped Wells hard on the shoulder. “I put it back. Shouldn’t have taken it out in the first place, but I thought I’d keep it for a rainy day.”

“What back?” said Wells, with some difficulty. His jaw was stiff, and there was cotton packed toward the back of his teeth.

“Still feeling hollow? It’ll get better. Milkshake?”

Wells concluded that this had something to do with tonsils or teeth, and nothing to do with death. They went to a diner, and little by little, he felt himself return from elsewhere.

Soon after that, though, his father was dead, and Wells was tricking strangers in a bus station. How many kinds of illusion can a person do in a lifetime? Flash paper, wallet spirited out of a pocket, a loud noise, and Wells would be gone. No funeral for his father. Nowhere to go but out into the wide world, alone.

He loves damage. Loves it.

He drops half a box of teabags into the bottom of the thermos, pours the boiling water over them, and waits another thousand years before he tugs them out. He dribbles the milk in carefully. He pays with a pile of ones he’s found in the bag, each with the face of his father instead of Washington. The cashier doesn’t notice.

• • • •

Wells has never been into the cemetery before, just seen it from the road, the white stones like cards dropped on a green felt table. He walks it, thermos in hand.

As morning grays the horizon, he sees her standing on a hill beside a heap of fresh dirt.

She’s wearing a leather jacket, and black motorcycle boots, inches too big. She has a helmet on too.

“You for the third time,” she says. She cocks her head at him. “Did I break your nose, then?”

“You did,” he says.

“That was the idea.” She barks a laugh, but she’s crying. “I stole my husband’s best friend’s bike and kit. All those bikers came for my husband. He’s their family. I’m nobody’s family.”

“I was sorry to hear about your—” he says, and then doesn’t know what to say.

“Kenny’s from here. I was living in London. He was riding through. It looked good to me. I got on. He isn’t a bad guy, but he has bad judgment. Look at who he married. He took our son for a ride in the middle of the night and ran into a tree, but he didn’t die. They’re all around his bed convincing him it wasn’t his fault, but it was. Tell me how that’s fair. Tell me how that happens.”

She sobs once, and then she’s done. Wells notices the second helmet dangling from her fingers. It’s small and red, to match the sunglasses she still has around her neck.

“What kinds of tricks can you do, then, Wells the Magician?” she says, after a moment.

“Cards, coins, bunnies.”

“I watched a magician saw a woman in half once,” she says. “In Brighton. She got rid of everything below the heart. That was a thing to see.”

He holds out the thermos.

She takes it. “And there’s a trick. You know what I don’t take in my tea?”

“Lemon,” he replies, “Obviously.”

“It curdles,” she says. “I don’t take sugar either. So stay away from me with your vulgarian attempts at sweet.”

“No sugar or lemon in there,” he says. “Despite appearances.”

Steam makes a cloud over her face as she pours tea into the cup and sips. She looks at Wells, and raises an eyebrow.

“Quite nice,” she says. “If milky.”

“I followed your directions.”

“It’s nursery tea, but it’ll do. One for the fates,” she says, and flings a drop of tea into the air. “One for the furies.” She pours a shot of tea into her hand, and smears it over the temporary grave marker.

“And one for the one I leave behind here, in this fucking ground, in this fucking country.”

She pours a shot of tea onto the grave itself.

Blood drips unexpectedly from Wells’ nose and lands on the snow, mixing with the tea. He’s turning to apologize, when the ground groans.

There’s a muffled explosion deep beneath the surface, and both of them lurch as dirt and snow are displaced. Gravel peppers his face. A rock bounces off her helmet.

The grave spits the coffin out.

It lands hard, and shudders. There’s a sound as the coffin opens. Wells isn’t sure who makes it, him or her. In the coffin, there’s a boy, eyes closed. Alive? Dead? There’s no way to tell.

Caro lunges toward her son, then stops.

Someone else is with them now, someone Wells has met before.

The stranger is wearing a coat made of smoke. There’s ice forming on Wells’s spine, and his heartbeat hesitates. Whether this is death or a devil, it hasn’t noticed him. Old agreements were bound in blood, and if he agreed he never met this thing, it agreed it never met him, too.

Caro’s fists are clenched. She smells like tea leaves being insisted into a fortune.

“No,” says Caro to the thing that stabbed Wells’s father. “It’s me you’ll be taking.”

“That old trope,” says a voice made out of last calls. “If I wanted you instead, I’d have had you instead. I didn’t ask to be brought here. Whatever summoned me, it was old business, not new. I’ll be off.”

Foggy tendrils twist toward the boy, and the smoke steps backward, one foot in the grave, clinging to the coffin. Caro pivots in her stolen boots, and swings the thermos of tea at the stabber’s head. Wells watches in despair.

She’s not going to win. She’s mortal, and she has no magic. All she has, is that she’s the mother of this child.

Wells is bourbon and hamburgers and a life spent spending every last cent on simple sins. Love has found him wanting. He’s stood in rooms full of birth and thought about dying. He’s a minor magic man with nothing but his broken life to lose.

And so.

Wells upends his bag of tricks and pours it out. He’s only ever fumbled for fixes, but the bag is larger than it looks. Here in the snow, now, are all the things Wells has ever lost.

The house he used to dream of living in, a wedding ring belonging to his mother, a history he’s spent decades hiding from. His mother screaming at his father, and then closing the kitchen door, his father in the center of the linoleum. A college-ruled notebook full of promises, a candle sputtering, a cloud of smoke around him. Wells was there when magic showed up in a mobile home.

Overkill.

How old was Wells? A high chair? A platter of peas, thrown one by one. Young enough that language eluded him, but he was there as his dad took his hand and cut a fingertip, making him part of the bargain, capable of carrying the bag of tricks and everything else.

The thing the stranger was rummaging for, all those years ago, was here, inside the sack. Wells was the bag carrier, the little piece of nothing, bearing his father’s soul and keeping it safe from any bad bargains. At one point, Wells’s own soul was in the sack too, maybe destined for a cup and ball swap, maybe just out of his dad’s bad habits.

Wells feels the magic that’s always been beside him, that rode in the passenger seat, that provided him with coins and stars and smoke, that messed with his marriages.

Now it’s in the snow. Wells reaches down and picks it up.

He has no real magic words for this old business. A trade of merchandise. He dropkicks the soul long-owed into the grave, and yells the word his dad taught him for rabbits and balloons.

“ABRACADABRA!”

And there is his father, in the middle of the air, naked and floating over the grave, a deck of cards orbiting him. There is his father, looking to Wells and nodding.

The open grave is full of smoke, like dry ice in a punch bowl. Like magic in a retirement home, this kind of death, its tricks visible in the light. Wells can hear a marching band somewhere, and he can feel confetti dropping out of the sky, and he can smell the scent of the perfume his mother used to wear.

The stabber is standing below Wells’s father, opening smoky arms, and taking the wandering soul in them. The coffin is open, and now it contains a naked magician.

Wells feels death depart the premises, and his own heart begins to beat properly again, in a way it hasn’t in years. The coffin is gone, and the grave is closed over. The show is done and the curtains are drawn, and Wells looks around, expecting a broom and a janitor, no joy, no glory, not even any roses.

Everything is as it was, except—

There is a little boy, very still on the ground, in a frozen slick of tea. There’s a pair of sunglasses shaped like hearts, cracked across one lens. There’s a helmet on the hillside, upturned. There’s an old wedding ring, glowing red, and then cooling, in a tarnished pile of pennies.

The bag of tricks is gone, but it isn’t necessary. Those were old tricks, and this is something else.

There’s a woman in leather, and she’s on her knees. There’s Wells in his lemon suit, and he’s on his knees too. There’s no such thing as magic.

And then, because magic doesn’t follow those rules, or any rules at all, the boy’s eyes open, and the woman goes to him, and the man goes to them, and the three are there, on the hilltop, with the whole world beneath them like a hat full of lucky rabbits, alive and kicking.

“Are you a magician?” the boy asks Wells. “I know magic.”

The boy leans toward Wells and touches his ear, and from the ear he pulls a coin, and the coin turns into a bird, and the bird flies up to spin across the sky and over the heads of sleepers and wakers in the town.

“Is there still tea, then?” Caro asks, and Wells passes her the thermos. The water is boiling now, and the tea is strong and dark. No one is crying. Everyone believes.

Maria Dahvana Headley

Maria Dahvana Headley

Maria Dahvana Headley is the author of the young adult sky ship fantasy Magonia, from HarperCollins, the novel Queen of Kings, the internationally bestselling memoir The Year of Yes, and The End of the Sentence, a novella co-written with Kat Howard, from Subterranean. With Neil Gaiman, she’s The New York Times-bestselling co-editor of the anthology Unnatural Creatures. Her short fiction has been nominated for the Nebula, World Fantasy, and Shirley Jackson awards, and has appeared at Uncanny Magazine, Tor.com, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Clarkesworld, Shimmer, Apex, Subterranean Online, and many more. It’s anthologized in Glitter & Mayhem, The Lowest Heaven, The Book of the Dead, twice in The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, The Year’s Best Weird Fiction, and three times in Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Her latest novel is The Mere Wife, a contemporary retelling of Beowulf.