Ricky smiled after doing it successfully ten times in a row. He could move the card from one hand to the other so that it couldn’t be seen, and he didn’t need any misdirection to do it. He had been practicing a card trick that involved this new sleight-of-hand for the better part of a week, and he finally felt ready for an audience. He looked in the mirror. He was dressed for performance – crisp white shirt, bow tie, his best shoes polished to a shine. He checked the pockets of his jacket to make sure he had everything he needed. He walked confidently downstairs and called his parents into the living room.
“Pick a card,” he said to his father.
“Let your mother do it. She’s the one who likes magic tricks. I always figure them out, so I don’t really enjoy it.” Ricky’s father hadn’t changed out of his work clothes, but his tie was loosened and the top button of his shirt was undone. Ricky thought his father seemed different these past few weeks, grumpier. Something had happened at work. Ricky heard his parents arguing about it a few nights ago, but he didn’t know what it was. His father walked to the other side of the room and dropped himself into his favorite chair.
“George, don’t be such a drip,” Ricky’s mother said. George waved her off. She turned to her son. “I’ll do it, honey. Your father seems to have decided that being cynical and above-it-all is the very essence of wisdom.” His father scowled and picked up the newspaper from the coffee table.
“Thanks, Mom.” Ricky fanned the deck in one hand and held it out. “Pick a card.”
His mother leaned in and looked up at Ricky with a big smile before she drew a card. Ricky thought his mother looked dowdy in her house dress and the apron she still had on since dinner. It made her seem an easy mark, trusting and gullible.
“Show it to Dad.” She held up the card and Ricky’s father rolled his eyes in a melodramatic show of indifference, even as he nodded.
“Alright,” said Ricky. He waved his hand and looked around the room as if speaking to a much larger audience. “Has everyone seen the card? Dad?”
“Yes!” his father snapped, making clear how disinterested and put upon he was.
“Okay,” said Ricky. “Mom, now take this marker and write your name on the card.” She took the pen and signed her name with a theatrical flourish. Ricky said, “Fold the card twice and hold it tightly in your hand.” She followed his instructions. He drew a wand from his jacket and waved it over her closed fist. Her hand seemed very small, like a child’s, something he’d never noticed before.
“I’ve seen this one and I know how it’s done,” Ricky’s father said. He stood as if to leave.
Ricky felt the anger rising in his throat. “Dad! Why are you being like this?! You ruin everything!” Without thinking, he threw the deck of cards right at his father’s face. His mother gasped. The cards flew everywhere. As the last one fluttered to the ground, Ricky’s father coughed as if something were caught in his throat. He reached into his mouth and pulled out a folded playing card.
“What the hell is this?” He unfolded the card and held it up. His wife’s name was written in black marker.
“Mom, open your hand,” Ricky said. She did. It was empty.
The three of them stood in stunned silence. Ricky’s mother mouthed the word, “Wow,” and almost began clapping, but looked at her husband and thought better of it. Ricky’s father was fuming, but he also looked puzzled as he tried to figure out what just happened. Ricky had no idea how the card ended up in his father’s mouth, but he was glad it did. “So, Dad, if you’re so smart, tell me how it was done.”
“Go to your room, young man. I’ll deal with you later.” He looked at his wife, whose face was now etched with alarm. “Doris, clean up this mess.” He stomped out of the living room and into the downstairs bathroom, slamming the door.
Ricky walked upstairs feeling triumphant, but also bewildered. That was not the trick he’d been practicing. He felt possessed, as if a spirit had entered his body and taken over. It unsettled him, but he had to admit that he also loved it. This was something extraordinary, something more than just an illusion or an effect.
He stood at the top of the stairs and looked down at his mother picking up the cards. Through a small window on the other side of the upstairs hallway, he saw the almost-full moon lighting up the front yard. He shook his head and went into his room.
Ever since Ricky saw a magician perform at a friend’s birthday party two years ago, he was enthralled. He loved everything about it – the patter, the effortless glide of the hands, the misdirection, the miraculous effects. He saved up and went to a magic shop in the city, got a few books and some props, and practiced obsessively. He went back to the shop many times and got to know the proprietor, Mr. Graffeo, who greeted Ricky each time by name and took his time explaining the history of the various illusions, the basics of performance, the techniques by which to achieve maximum effect. Ricky now had dozens of tricks he was working on. He didn’t know anyone at school who was as fascinated by magic as he was, and he was sure this would become his unique skill, the thing that made him special, worthy of other’s admiration and esteem. At first, he only showed the tricks to his best friend David, but other classmates started wandering over, and his audiences grew until there could be as many as twenty who gathered to watch his lunchtime performances. Some were older kids who would never otherwise be seen with Ricky, and there was a girl that Ricky had a crush on but was too shy to speak to.
One day, Ricky was doing a series of coin tricks in the cafeteria when he saw Axel Martin approaching from across the room. Ricky hated Axel Martin. He was a widely-feared bully, capable of great cruelty, without provocation or remorse. One day last year, for no apparent reason, he slapped Ricky in the back of the head as he passed him in the hallway. When Ricky said, “Hey, what was that for?” Axel grabbed him by the front of his shirt and threw him up against the lockers. If David hadn’t alerted a teacher in a nearby classroom, Ricky might have taken a real beating. Since then, Ricky kept his distance, and walked in the opposite direction whenever he saw Axel coming.
Seeing him now, walking toward them in his leather jacket and ripped jeans, it could mean only one thing – Axel was going to pick someone out of the group, rough them up, and take their money. Ricky stiffened and stopped in the middle of the trick he was performing for fear of messing up.
Axel pushed one of the kids aside and said, “What’s going on here at the nerd convention?”
“Ricky’s doing magic tricks,” said David in a nervous rush of words. “You should check it out.”
Ricky was feeling a little feisty after last night’s incident with his father, so he thought he might be able to distract Axel with a coin trick. “Axel,” he said, his voice trembling a bit. “Watch this.” He held a quarter in one hand, then grabbed it with his other hand and closed his fingers around it. He shook his fist as if he was about to roll a pair of dice, then held it out in front of Axel. “Blow on it,” he said.
“Blow me,” said Axel, scowling. David stifled a laugh, and the girl Ricky has a crush on gasped. Ricky wasn’t sure if she was offended by Axel’s vulgarity or fearful on Ricky’s behalf about what Axel might do.
“Okay, watch,” Ricky said. He opened his hand and it was empty. Ricky heard a few oohs and aahs as he kept his eyes on Axel. There was a whistling sound from across the room; suddenly a quarter came flying out of nowhere and hit Axel full force on the forehead.
“Ouch!” Axel screamed, and everyone ran. “You’re dead, Magic Boy!” he yelled as Ricky ducked out a side door.
Two periods later, when Ricky and David sat next to each other in history class, David leaned over and whispered, “Are you crazy?! Axel Martin’s going to kill you. But … that was awesome! How’d you do it?”
“Magicians never tell,” Ricky whispered back. But just like that night with his father, he really had no idea.
Over the next week, Ricky practiced his magic tricks with a new sense of urgency. Cards, coins, scarves, a rope that would reattach after he cut it with scissors, balls that would disappear and reappear, metal rings that would pass through each other. He did the tricks alone in his room, watching himself in the mirror, and even though he was getting really good, it wasn’t as much fun without an audience, without someone to fool, someone to amaze. He somehow understood that he had to keep practicing until he was perfect – there could be no slip-ups – if he wanted the real magic like the card in his father’s mouth or the quarter that beaned Axel Martin to continue to happen. And although he felt intoxicated by these new magic powers, he was also unnerved by how unpredictable and beyond his control they were.
“Ricky! Dinner!” his mother called from downstairs.
“Coming.” He took one last look in the mirror. With a snap of his wrists, he made the cards he had fanned in each hand disappear. He hung his jacket on a hook in the closet and sauntered downstairs with a big smile.
A few days after the incident in the cafeteria, Ricky was standing with David and a few others in front of the school, waiting for the afternoon bus. When he saw Axel Martin coming toward them, he braced for a confrontation.
Axel stepped up to him and said, “I’ve been looking for you, Magic Boy. And I owe you this.” He reared back and punched Ricky in the face. Ricky felt a jolt of pain through his whole body. He had never been punched like that before. A few of Axel’s posse laughed. Ricky’s friends were too intimidated to say anything, and stood in petrified silence.
Ricky tasted the blood in his mouth. He turned toward the school building and saw his reflection in one of the windows. A bruise was forming where he’d been hit, and a stream of blood ran down his chin. He turned and faced Axel. He saw the small scar on Axel’s forehead from the coin trick in the cafeteria. He also noticed, for the first time, that Axel was about the same height as he was. Ricky had always imagined him much taller.
Ricky felt something stir in his chest. “That which you have done I declare undone. That which you do I return unto you!” He had no idea where these words came from, and his voice sounded odd, otherworldly. He drew his hand across his face and Axel fell back as if he’d been struck.
Everyone looked at Ricky. “The blood is gone,” someone yelled. Ricky looked at his reflection again and there was no blood or bruise. Axel’s face was covered with blood and a big purple welt had raised on his cheek. Ricky hadn’t touched him.
“Wow,” said David. “That was insane!”
“How’d he do that?” one of Axel’s crew called out. Axel spun around and slapped him for the offense of being impressed.
Ricky turned and walked away. Even though his body was buzzing, he tried to appear calm as he wondered what was happening to him. But he knew two things. This was real magic, and it was thrilling.
Ricky had always imagined that his magic tricks would be the special talent that drew people to him, but after the run-in with Axel, the opposite was happening. Walking through the halls of the school, he saw the other students pointing at him and whispering. They would step aside and let him pass or duck around a corner to avoid him. It was as if they were afraid of him, like he was some kind of freak. One day in English class, even the girl he had a crush on scurried away when he finally worked up the courage to approach her so he could introduce himself.
The only person who stuck by him was David, who remained a loyal sidekick, always encouraging and enthusiastic. Ricky asked David what people were saying about him, and after hesitating, David said, “They see the surprise in your face. I see it too. They think the tricks are out of your control, and they’re afraid they might get hurt.”
Even with David’s support, Ricky felt isolated and alone, and he still didn’t quite understand what was happening, or why. He decided to ask the one person he thought would understand, and maybe offer some advice – Mr. Graffeo from the magic shop.
“Hello, Ricky,” Graffeo said with a big smile. “It’s good to see you again. How have you been?” He looked performance-ready as always – perfectly fitted black suit, this time with a red carnation in the lapel, white shirt, red bow tie, hair slicked back, pencil moustache.
“Good and bad, I guess,” said Ricky. “I need your help.”
“My pleasure, of course. What is it?” Graffeo stepped out from behind the counter.
“I’m getting really good,” said Ricky. “Maybe too good.”
“No such thing, young man. No such thing.”
Ricky shifted his weight back and forth, and looked at the floor. “The tricks go way beyond the effects that I practice. Things happen … I don’t even know how to describe it.”
“That’s a good thing, Ricky. That means you’ve gone on to the next level, which not everyone can do. You’re crossing over into real magic. It’s the difference between being an illusionist and a conjurer.”
“What does that even mean, Mr. Graffeo? I don’t understand.”
“You will in time. But don’t you find it exhilarating?”
“Yes, I guess. But these tricks are just illusions and I know the secrets behind them, or what’s supposed to be behind them. And then … things happen. Coins fly out of nowhere. I even had a folded card appear in my father’s mouth. I can’t explain it. It’s like I’m not even the one doing it.” Ricky wondered if he sounded crazy.
Graffeo smiled and clapped Ricky on the shoulder. “Let’s go in the back. I want to show you something.”
They walked through a door behind the counter into a dimly lit room crowded with all kinds of props and equipment. Ricky thought it smelled a little like a barn, and then he noticed against the back wall a row of cages with birds, rabbits, snakes, and a large iguana. “I see you’ve noticed my assistants,” Mr. Graffeo said. “Want to hold one?”
Before Ricky could answer, Graffeo took a metal box off a nearby table, showed Ricky that it was empty, then spun it around, reached inside, and pulled out an iguana. He put it on Ricky’s shoulders. Ricky looked at the cage in the back; the iguana that had been there seconds before was gone.
“His name is Juan,” Graffeo said, smiling broadly. “Juan the Iguana. He’s from Mexico. But you look a little uncomfortable. Here.” Graffeo produced a red silk scarf from nowhere and draped it over Ricky’s head and shoulders. Ricky heard a loud whoosh. Graffeo withdrew the scarf and Juan was gone. Ricky looked back at the cage and there he was.
“Juan and I have been practicing teleportation for a few weeks, and I think we’ve finally got it.”
Ricky didn’t know what to say. Graffeo’s trick was incredible, but that’s not why he was here. “Mr. Graffeo, can you help me? I need my tricks to be more … I don’t know … under control.”
“No, no, my friend. At this stage, you need to surrender yourself to these new powers, feel the energy surging through you, and discover what magic – real magic – can do.” Graffeo stared wistfully off to the side for a moment. He looked back at Ricky. “I think I know what might help.” He motioned with one hand, and a deck of cards appeared. He motioned with the other hand and produced a few small sheets of clear plastic. He handed the deck to Ricky. “These cards have some powers of their own that will go well with what you’re experiencing. Put them in your pocket for now and hold out your hands.”
Ricky did as he was told. Graffeo laid a sheet of the clear plastic in each palm. The plastic wrapped around Ricky’s hands and seemed to melt into them.
“These plastic sheets enable you to create one of my favorite effects,” Graffeo said. “Keep your palm up and do this.” Graffeo motioned as if tossing something aside. When Ricky copied the gesture, a small flame appeared in his hand. Ricky was startled at first, then became aware that he felt no burning sensation.
“Now toss the flame into your other hand as if it were a tennis ball.” Again, Ricky complied, and the flame jumped from one hand to the other. Ricky smiled, then tossed the flame back and forth several more times.
“Very good. I see you’ve got the hang of it. I never understood the admonition about not playing with fire.” Graffeo laughed. “Now throw the flame at that curtain.” Ricky faced a dark red curtain hanging from a metal rod on the ceiling. He made a throwing motion. The curtain burst into flames, and in seconds, all that was left was a wisp of smoke. With the curtain gone, a large sign was revealed. “Congratulations, Ricky,” it read in elaborate script. “You are now ready!”
Graffeo stuffed the remaining plastic sheets into Ricky’s shirt pocket and said, “You are one of the fortunate ones, one of the gifted ones who can take things beyond mere tricks, mere illusions. As a conjurer, you now have a responsibility to embrace this power. The power of magic!” He shook Ricky’s hand, then walked him back into the shop and out the door. Ricky tried to make sense of it all – power and responsibility, illusion and conjuring, magic tricks and real magic. He suspected there was more to it, and that Graffeo wasn’t telling him everything.
The next morning at school, Ricky was excited to tell David about Graffeo and the magic shop. David wasn’t at his locker, and he wasn’t in first period math class. Ricky walked into the cafeteria for his lunch period and scanned the room. Still no David. He took out the deck of cards Graffeo had given him and began shuffling, thinking he might attract a small audience. After a group of students looked over then looked away, he put the cards back in his pocket, got his lunch, and sat alone at a table against the back wall.
Two girls came running toward him. Ricky recognized them as part of his lunchtime audience, but he didn’t know their names.
“Ricky! You’ve got to come outside,” one said, panting.
Ricky looked up at them. “Why? What’s going on?” He felt embarrassed that he sounded just like his father – annoyed, put upon, as if he couldn’t be bothered.
“It’s David!” the other one said. “Axel Martin and his disgusting goony friends dragged him outside. They’ve got him under the bleachers.”
Ricky dumped his uneaten lunch into a nearby waste bin, and ran out of the building and around to the back of the school where the ball fields were.
As he approached the bleachers, he saw Axel Martin and his posse of idiots. They had David tied to the bleachers’ metal supports and they were taking turns punching him in the stomach. There were no teachers anywhere in sight.
Ricky stood about twenty feet away. “Knock it off, Axel! That’s enough!” When they all turned toward him, Ricky snapped his fingers and the ropes that bound David fell away.
David tried to run, but Axel grabbed him by the arm. “Look who’s here! Magic Boy to the rescue, right on schedule. If you want your friend, come and get him.”
On any other day, Ricky would have been scared, or nervous, or tongue-tied. But today he felt powerful. And angry! It was if he were possessed, just like that first night with his parents and the card trick, but even more so. “You have no idea what you’re dealing with, Axel.” He produced Graffeo’s deck of cards. “Pick a card.”
“You’ve got to be kidding!” Axel said.
“Never mind. I’ll pick it for you. How about this one?” He pulled a card from the deck. “Well what do you know, it’s a club. The jack of clubs.” Ricky flicked it at Axel. The card whistled through the air and hit Axel right in the eye, knocking him back a step.
Axel yelped and put his hand to his face. He grabbed David’s arm tighter. “That’s it. You’re dead. I’m gonna kill both of you!”
Ricky held his hands out, snapped his wrists, and two small flames appeared in his palms. “Last chance, Axel. Let him go.”
“Yeah, right!” Axel snarled.
“Wrong answer,” Ricky said calmly. He felt electrified.
Ricky threw the fire in Axel’s direction. In seconds, the entire bleachers went up in flames. The posse scattered, leaving only Axel and David.
Ricky was alarmed at the sight of the huge fire, but couldn’t stop himself. His hands seemed to be moving on their own. “Okay Axel. This one’s for you.” He produced another ball of flame and threw it. Axel Martin ignited instantly and was consumed by fire in the blink of an eye. There was a puff of gray smoke, and a small pile of ash dropped to the ground where Axel had been standing.
Ricky saw David lying on the ground nearby. He ran to him and dragged him away from the heat of the bleacher fire. He saw that David’s arm and the side of his face were badly burned. Ricky wiped David’s sweat-soaked hair off his forehead. “Are you okay?” He started to feel a little sick.
“Yes, Ricky, I’m fine,” David said, then he broke into a coughing fit that lasted a few seconds. When the coughing subsided, he said, “I’m okay. Really. Thanks for being such a good friend.” He coughed twice more, then passed out.
Ricky heard the sirens, then saw the flashing lights. Someone must have called. Firemen with hoses were running to put out the fire, and an ambulance pulled off the road, onto the grass, and right up to where he and David were. The EMTs put David on a stretcher and loaded him in. Ricky watched them drive away, then turned and walked slowly back into the school through the crowd of students and teachers who stepped aside to let him pass.
When Ricky was questioned by school officials and by the police, he played dumb, and recounted what happened in a manner that confirmed their suspicions that Axel Martin was responsible for the fire. Later, Ricky learned that Axel had been abandoned by his parents many years ago and lived in a group foster home where he regularly terrorized the other children and was repeatedly in trouble with the police. He was despised, resented, or feared by everyone who knew him. The host family and the state agencies did nothing to follow-up or investigate, and in spite of their public expressions of regret, were happy to be done with him.
The next day, Ricky went back to the magic shop, and was surprised to see a sign in the window that read, “Commercial space, available for lease.” A few doors down, he saw Mr. Graffeo loading boxes into a rental truck. Ricky walked up to him and said, “Mr. Graffeo, what’s going on? Where are you going?”
“Hello, Ricky. It’s time for me to move on, that’s all. I’m glad you’re here so I could say goodbye.”
“But why, Mr. Graffeo? Why do you have to go?”
“You did good, Ricky,” Graffeo said, ignoring the question. “I heard all about what happened at school. You stood up to a bully, and I’m proud of you.”
“Proud of me?!” Ricky yelled. “For what?! I just wanted to be special, to be liked. I used to love magic. I still love magic, but … I didn’t want this! Because of you, all the other kids avoid me … ’cause they’re afraid of me!”
Graffeo smiled. “I know it’s confusing. Just give it time. Remember what I said about the difference between an illusionist and a conjurer? You have a gift. I could sense it the first time you came into the shop, and I am grateful to have been there to help you experience your gift, to find your power. You’re still young, and you still have a young man’s intensity of feeling, which is both a blessing and a curse. Anger, longing, joy, contempt, fear, love. As you learn to control these emotions, so too will your newfound powers come under your control. And then, there will be no limit to what you can achieve!”
“Yeah, but look what I’ve achieved so far. On top of everything else, you’ve made me a murderer! I didn’t like Axel Martin, but that doesn’t mean I want to kill him!”
“Don’t look at it that way, Ricky. You’ve rid the world of evil. A tiny fraction of the evil in the world, but still. Learn from this. From now on, it’s up to you to decide what you want to do, what you want to accomplish, with your magic powers.” He put his hand on Ricky’s shoulder. “Goodbye, Ricky. It’s been an honor.”
Ricky was speechless. Graffeo loaded the last box in and drove away. Ricky watched the truck pull to a stop sign. Graffeo stuck his arm out the window, waved back at Ricky, then snapped his fingers. There was a small flash of light and the truck vanished.
Ricky wandered the streets for a few hours before he went home, trying to make sense of what Graffeo had said. When he finally walked in his front door, he heard his mother call from the kitchen, “Oh, there you are! Wash up, dinner’s almost ready.”
“Okay,” said Ricky, feeling exhausted. “I’ll be down in a minute.”
He grabbed a garbage bag from the hall closet and went up to his room. He gathered all his magic props and paraphernalia – the cards, the coins, the scarves, the ropes, the balls, the metal rings, the magic wand … even his top hat and his red bow tie, and put them in the bag. He walked down the back stairs and put the bag in a trash can. He pressed the last sheet of Mr. Graffeo’s clear plastic into his palm and summoned a small ball of fire. He looked down into the trash can, then changed his mind. He threw the fire at a small pile of leaves that ignited, burned for a few seconds, then died out. Ricky retrieved the garbage bag and took it back into the house. He went up to his room and stuffed it into the back corner of his closet. He joined his parents at the dinner table and ate his meat loaf, broccoli, and mashed potatoes in silence.
Alan Brickman, when not writing, consults to nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and program evaluation. Raised in New York, educated in Massachusetts, he now lives in New Orleans with his 17-year old border collie Jasper, and neither of them can imagine living anywhere else. Alan’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Ekphrastic Review, Literary Heist, JONAHMagazine, Variety Pack, Oracle, SPANK the CARP, Streetlight Magazine, Evening Street Press, Sisyphus Magazine, and October Hill Magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.