The Magician Takes a Bow
How many people can say they were there the night the trick went wrong and the Magician died on stage? Certainly, that first morning on the strip—dazed gamblers blinking in the rising light, the ambulance come and gone, with the smell of gunpowder lingering in the air—everyone claimed they knew someone who heard the Magician’s Assistant scream, saw the spray of blood, saw a man rush on stage and faint dead away.
Of course very few people making the claim, then or now, are telling the truth. Vegas is a city of illusion, and everyone likes feeling they’re in on the secret, understand how the trick is done, but very few do.
The end came for the Magician, fittingly, during the Bullet-Catch-Death-Cheat, the trick that made him famous. A real gun is fired by a willing audience member. The Magician dies. The Magician reappears alive and at back of the theater. Presto, abracadabra, ta-da.
There are small variations. Sometimes the Magician’s Assistant fires the gun, if the audience is squeamish, or especially drunk. She revels in these brief moments in the spotlight, dreaming of being a magician herself some day. Sometimes the Magician reappears in the balcony, waving, and sometimes by the exit doors. Once he reappeared as a vendor selling popcorn, his satin-lapeled jacket smelling of butter and heat and salt. Once, he came back as a waiter and spilled a drink on an audience member who was confidently whispering that they knew exactly how he pulled it off.
Just because Houdini flashed bullets in his smile years before the Magician was born, people think they have it nailed down. Variations on tricks of every kind are a grand tradition in the magic world, and everyone knows none of it is real. The world is rational; it obeys certain rules. They hold this truth like shield against the swoop in their bellies every time the Magician falls and gets back up again. None would dare admit out loud that deep down, a tiny part of them desperately wants to believe.
Here’s the secret, and it’s a simple one: dying is easy. All the Magician has to do is stand with teeth clenched, muscles tight, breath slowed, and wait. The real work is left to his Resurrectionist girlfriend, Angie, standing just off stage, night after night, doing the impossible, upsetting the natural order of the world. Her timing is always impeccable, her focus a razor’s edge. Her entire will is trained on holding the bullet in place, coaxing the Magician’s blood to flow and forbidding his heart from simply quitting out of shock. Death can be very startling, after all.
There is pain, of course, but by the time he died for good, it had become a habit for the Magician, and besides, the applause made it worthwhile. He never once allowed himself to think about the thousand huge and tiny things had to go right for the trick to work, or that only one had to go wrong.
After all, the Resurrectionist pulled it off night after night—how hard could it be? Inside the wash of the spotlight, he couldn’t see her grit her teeth, how she sweated in the shadows while he flashed his smile and took his bows. Everything always went off, just like magic, and he always managed to vanish by the time her raging headache set in, forcing her to lie in a dark room with a cold cloth over her eyes.
But she never complained. The money was good, and much like dying had become a habit for the Magician, the Magician had become a habit for her.
Maybe they could have gone on like that forever if it hadn’t been for the Magician’s Assistant. Not the one who fired the gun, but the first one. Meg, who died and came back as a ghost.
The Assistant Takes Flight
Meg was young when she was the Magician’s Assistant, but everyone was back then. She was also in love with the Magician, but everyone was that back then, too. Even Rory, the Magician’s longtime stage manager, who was perhaps the most in love of all.
Rory thought of Meg as a little sister, and Meg thought of Rory as a dear friend, but neither of them ever spoke of their feelings for the Magician aloud. They worked side by side every day, believing themselves alone in their singular orbits of longing, both ashamed to have fallen so far and so hard for so long.
All of this was before the Magician’s Resurrectionist girlfriend, before the Bullet-Catch-Death-Cheat was even a gleam in the Magician’s eye. Back then, before coming back from the dead to thunderous applause supplanted it all, the Magician sawed women in half, plucked cards from thin air, nicked watches from sleeves, and pulled one very grumpy rabbit out of a hat night after night. Off stage and on, the Magician called the rabbit Gus, even though that wasn’t his name, and assigned him motives and personality to make the audience laugh.
Whether it was the name or the hat, the rabbit only tolerated this for so long, and one fateful night, he bit the Magician hard enough to necessitate the tip of his left index finger being sewn back on. After the blood and the gauze, and the trip to the hospital, the Magician decided he was fed up too. He needed a new act, a new assistant, a fresh start.
He didn’t consult or warn Meg, but directed her to an all-night diner as she drove him back from the emergency room. Up until the moment the words “I’m done,” came from the Magician’s mouth, Meg harbored the hope that this trauma would allow him to finally see her, and that he’d invited her to the diner at 1:47 a.m. to confess his love.
Instead, he broke her heart and put her out of a job in the same breath. And he didn’t even have the decency to pay for her half of the meal.
Meg stared at the Magician. The Magician fidgeted with his gauze, and looked at the door and the neon and the cooling desert outside.
“I’m sure you’ll land on your feet, kid,” he said.
Meg blinked. She dug in her purse for tissues and money for the meal. When she looked up, the Magician was gone. Vanished into thin air.
Meg dropped coins and bills on the table without counting. Colt-wobbly legs carried her into the night. The air seared her lungs, and tears frosted her lashes. All up and down the strip, everything blurred into a river of light.
The Magician’s Assistant—she wasn’t even that anymore. Just Meg, and her parents had drilled into her young that that wasn’t worth anything at all. Who was she, if she wasn’t with the Magician? What could she possibly be?
Lacking evidence to the contrary, she chose to believe her parents. On stage with the Magician, she could pretend the glitter on her costume was a little bit of his glory rubbed off on her. Alone, she was nothing at all, and her ridiculous costume was just sequins, falling in her wake as she hailed a cab.
The car stopped at a location she must have given, though she didn’t remember saying anything at all. The space between her shoulder blades itched. She climbed out. Wind tugged at her hair and she took a moment to breathe in awe at the lights illuminating the vast sweep of concrete, a marvel of engineering, a wonder of the new world.
Meg left her purse on the backseat. She slipped off her shoes. The itch between her shoulder blades grew. Feathers ached to push themselves out from inside her skin.
Instead of landing on her feet, Meg landed at the bottom of Hoover Dam. A 727 foot drop that should have been impossible with all the security, except that just for a moment, Meg borrowed a little bit of magic—real magic—for her own. As she jumped, feathers burst from her skin and all the sequins in her costume blazed like stars. For just one instant before she fell, the Magician’s Assistant flew.
The Stage Manager Brings White Roses
Rory remembered Meg, and it seemed he was the only one.
Before she hit the ground, before he left the diner and Meg sitting stunned in the booth behind him, the Magician had already forgotten her name. If he ever knew it at all. While Meg flew, capturing a moment of real magic without an audience or applause, the Magician was at a bar forgetting what he’d never remembered in the first place, and so Rory was the one who got the call. He sat on the floor, put his head in his hands, and sobbed.
Even though the Magician paid her a pittance, Meg brought Rory coffee and pastry at least once a week. He taught her how to knit. She taught him how to throw a fastball. She invited him to her tiny apartment, and introduced him to her guinea pigs, Laurel and Hardy. They watched old movies, both having a fondness for Vincent Price, William Powell, and Myrna Loy, and popcorn with too much salt. They laughed at stupid things, and cried at sad ones, and never let each other know of their mutual ache for the Magician.
Now that it was too late, Rory saw that of course he was like Meg, she was like him, and they were both fools. He brought a massive spray of white roses to her funeral. He laid them gently atop her cheap coffin, and his heart broke all over again. There were only five other people in the tiny chapel, and the Magician wasn’t one of them.
Rory hated him. Or, he meant to. Except when the Magician came to him three days later and told Rory he was putting together a new show and would Rory continue to stage manage him, Rory didn’t hesitate half as long as he should have before answering. His heart stuttered, his breath caught. The word no shaped itself on his lips, and the word yes emerged instead.
He betrayed Meg’s memory, and loathed himself for it, but he didn’t change his mind. The best Rory could do was press a single white rose in his handkerchief, and tuck it in a pocket over his heart, listening to it crackle as he followed the Magician to start again.
Every night, under the lights, the Magician smiled. His teeth dazzled with a rainbow of gel colors Rory directed his way. Every time the gun fired, Rory felt the kick of it reverberate inside him. His blood thundered. His stomach swooped. He ached with the Magician and felt his pain as he watched him fall.
Every night as the Magician allowed himself to be shot, Rory held his breath. He clenched his teeth. His muscles went tight with hope and dread wondering if this time the Magician might finally stay down so he could be free.
The Resurrectionist and the Ghost
Angie is the first person to see Meg when she comes back from the dead. The Resurrectionist sits in the Magician’s dressing room, applying concealer over the exhausted bags under her eyes. No one will see her in the wings, but that’s precisely why she does it. The makeup is a little thing she can do for herself and no one else.
It’s getting harder to hold everything together, to want to hold it together—tell the bullet to stop, to cease to be once it’s inside the Magician’s skin, and tell the Magician’s blood to go. She sleeps eighteen hours a day, and it isn’t enough. Angie’s life has become an endless cycle—wake, eat, turn back death, applause that isn’t for her, sleep, repeat ad infinitum.
She smoothes the sponge around the corner of her left eye, and the ghost appears. Angie starts, and feels something like recognition.
“I’ve been waiting for you.” The words surprise Angie; she wonders what she means. A vague memory tugs at the back of her skull, of a night in a bar long ago, but before she can grab hold it fades away.
“Who are you?” the ghost asks.
“Who are you?” Angie counters.
“The Magician’s Assistant,” the ghost says.
“The Magician’s girlfriend.” The words leave a bitter, powdery, crushed aspirin taste on Angie’s tongue.
Angie laughs; it’s a brittle sound. How absurd, that they should define themselves solely in relation to the Magician. The ghost looks hurt until Angie speaks again.
“Meg.” The ghost gives her name reluctantly as if she isn’t entirely sure.
“So, you were the Magician’s Assistant,” Angie says.
Memory nags at her again, and all at once, the pieces click into place. When she and the Magician first met, he’d worn sorrow like a coat two sizes too large, but one he wasn’t even aware of wearing. Angie had sensed a hurt in him, and it had intrigued her, and now she knows—the hurt belonged to Meg all along.
There’s a certain flavor to it, tingeing the air. Even with the glass between them, Angie tastes it—like pancakes drowned in syrup, and coffee with too much cream.
Looking at Meg, Angie sees herself in the mirror. The Magician pulled a trick on both of them, sleight of hand. They should have been looking one direction, but he’d convinced them to look elsewhere as he vanished their names like a card up his sleeve, tucked them into a cabinet painted with stars so they emerged transformed—a dove, a bouquet of flowers, a Resurrectionist, a ghost. If Angie squints just right, there’s a blur framing Meg, a faint, smudgy glow sprouting from between her shoulder blades. It almost looks like wings, but when Angie blinks, it’s gone.
Well, shit, Angie thinks, but doesn’t say it aloud.
Behind Meg, sand blows. Or maybe it’s snow. The image flickers, like two stations coming in on the TV at the same time, back when that was still a thing.
“Can I come through?” Angie asks.
“Can you?” Meg’s eyes widen in surprise.
“I’m a Resurrectionist.” Angie’s mouth twists on the words, but she can’t think of a better way to explain. “Death and I have an understanding.”
Angie reaches through the glass. The mirror wavers, and Meg’s fingers close on Angie’s hand.
“Is there somewhere we can talk?” Angie asks.
Meg shrugs, embarrassed. This is her death, but it isn’t under her control.
“Over there?” Angie points to the neon shining through the storm.
Meg shudders, but her expression remains perfectly blank. She looks to Angie like a person actively forgetting the worst moment in their world.
As they walk, Angie learns that for Meg, sometimes death looks like a desert with a lomo camera filter applied. Sometimes it’s sand and sometimes snow, but it’s always littered with bleached cow bones and skulls. It’s a place where you’re always walking toward the horizon, carrying your best party shoes, but you never arrive. Mostly, though, Meg’s death looks like a diner at 1:47 a.m., right before your boss—the man you love—tells you you’re out of a job and a future and good luck on the way down.
Inside the diner, laminated menus decorate each booth. The wind ticks sand against the glass as Meg and Angie slide onto cracked red faux-leather banquettes. In the corner, a silent jukebox glows.
“I don’t mean to be indelicate, but you’ve been dead for a while. Why come back now?”
The air is scented with fry grease and coffee on the edge of burnt, old cooking smells trapped like ghosts.
“I don’t know,” Meg says. “I think something important is about to happen. Or it already happened. I can’t tell.”
She shreds her napkin into little squares, letting them fall like desert snow. Her nails are ragged, the skin around them chewed. This time when Angie squints, Meg goes translucent, and Angie sees her falling without end.
The Rabbit Returns
The first time Angie saw the Magician, he had gauze wrapped around his left index finger, spotted with dried blood. She’d just lost her job, or rather it had lost her. Donna, who sat in the next cubicle over, caught Angie uncurling the browned leaves of a plant, bringing them back from the brink of death to full glossy health. Angie’s boss called Angie into her office at noon, and by 1 p.m. Angie was installed at a bar, getting slowly drunk.
The constant movement of the Magician’s hands was what caught Angie’s eye. She watched as he tried the same cheap card trick, only slightly clumsy with his injured hand, on almost every patron in the bar. No matter which card his mark chose, when the Magician asked, “Is this your card?” he revealed the Tarot card showing the Lovers, and smirked at the implications of flesh entwined. She watched until it worked, and someone left on the Magician’s arm. Angie found herself simultaneously annoyed and amused, and the following night, she returned to the same bar, curious whether the Magician would as well.
The Magician did return, but there were no card tricks this time. She spotted him alone in a corner, his head resting on his folded arms. Angie slipped into his booth, holding her breath. If this was a performance, it was a good one. The Magician looked up, and Angie couldn’t help the way her breath left in a huff. His face was stark with a grief, thick enough for her to touch.
“He’s dead,” the Magician said. “The little bastard bit me. He was my best friend, and now he’s gone.”
The Magician blinked at Angie as if she’d appeared out of thin air. Angie said nothing, and the Magician seemed to take it as encouragement to go on. He held up his gauze-wrapped finger, and poured out his pain.
“Maybe I left his cage open after he bit me because I was mad. Maybe I was distracted because I’d just fired my assistant and I forgot to latch it tight. Whatever happened, he got all the way outside, across the parking lot. I found him on the side of the road, flat as a swatted bug.”
Tears glittered on the Magician’s cheeks. They had to be real. If he’d been putting on a show, he would have made a point of letting Angie see him wipe them away.
“I put his body in a shoebox in my freezer. I’m going to bury him in the desert.” The Magician laughed, an uneven sound. “Have you ever been to a rabbit funeral?”
The faint sheen at his cuffs spoke of wear. Despite the show he’d put on the night before—cheap card tricks to tumble marks into his bed—she saw a man down on his luck, wearing thin, a man whose deepest connection was with the rabbit who’d bit him then run away.
The Magician looked lost, baffled by grief—like a little boy just learning the world could hurt him. There was something pure in his sorrow, something Angie hadn’t seen in Vegas in a long time. It looked like truth, and Angie wanted to gather it into her hands, a silk scarf endlessly pulled from a sleeve.
A shadow haloed the Magician. A death that wasn’t the rabbit’s clinging to his skin; he didn’t even seem aware it was there. Angie caught her breath, deciding before she’d fully asked herself the question. That bigger death wasn’t one she could touch, but the rabbit—that was a small thing she could heal.
“Do you want to see a magic trick?” she asked. “A real one?”
The Magician’s eyes went wide, touched with something like wonder. Maybe it was his grief making him see clear, but for just a moment, he seemed to truly see her. He nodded, and held out his hand.
The Magician led Angie to his shitty apartment. As they climbed the stairs, her nerves sang—a cage, full of doves waiting to be released, a star-spangled box with a beautiful woman vanishing inside. Her skin tingled. She considered that she was about to make the biggest mistake of her life, and decided to make it anyway.
“His name was Gus.” The Magician set a shoebox on his makeshift coffee table.
The rabbit lay on his side. Despite the Magician’s description, he wasn’t particularly flat. He might have been sleeping, if not for the cold. It seeped into Angie’s fingers as she held her hands above the corpse. The Magician watched her, all curiosity and intensity, and Angie blushed. A rabbit was different than a houseplant—what if she failed? And what if she succeeded?
The rabbit twitched. His pulse jumped in her veins, a panicked scrabbling. Angie placed her hands directly on the rabbit’s soft, cold fur. She meant to make a hushing sound, soothing the rabbit’s fear, but the Magician’s mouth covered hers. Salt laced his tongue; was she crying, or was he? She lifted her hands from the rabbit and pressed them against the Magician’s back instead to still their shaking. Death clung to them, tacky and oddly sweet. She resisted the urge to wipe her palms against the Magician’s shirt, pulling him closer.
She’d never brought back anything larger than a sparrow. Now she could feel the rabbit’s life in her—hungry, wild, wanting to run in every direction at once. The other, larger death continued to nibble at her edges—feathers itching beneath her skin, wind blowing over lonely ground.
The rabbit’s pink nose twitched; his red-tinged eyes blew galaxy-wide. He ran a circle around the Magician’s apartment, and the Magician laughed, a joyous, bellowing sound. He lifted Angie by the shoulders, twirling her around.
“Do you know what this means?” His voice crashed off the cracked and water-stained apartment walls.
He scooped her up, carried her to rumpled sheets still smelling of last night’s sex. Angie’s teeth chattered; the rabbit was still freezing, and the Magician was warm. She dug her fingers into his back, and leaned into him.
The sex was some of the strangest Angie had ever had. The Magician touched her over and over again, amazed, as if searching for something beneath her skin. For her part, Angie kept getting distracted. She snapped in and out of her body, pulled to the corner of the room where the rabbit rubbed his paws obsessively across his face. She giggled inappropriately, her limbs twitching beyond her control. She developed an insatiable craving for carrots. The Magician, lost in his own wild galaxy of stars, never seemed to notice at all.
In the morning, she found the Magician at his cramped kitchen table. The sense she’d forgotten something nagged at the back of her mind—something sad, something with feathers—but the more she reached after it, the further it withdrew. She watched the Magician scribble on a napkin, coffee cooling beside him, burnt toast with one bite taken out of it sitting on a plate. He looked up at Angie with a wicked grin.
“How would you like to be part of a magic show?”
The Assistant Returns
The bell over the door chimes, and Meg flinches, her shoulders rising like a shield. She and Angie both look to the entrance, but there’s no one there.
“We should go.” Angie might be about to make the second biggest mistake of her life, but she decides to do it anyway. “Would you like to see a magic show?”
“I did magic once.” Meg’s voice is dreamy. “I think, but…” She frowns, then shakes her head, a sharp motion knocking the dreaming out of her voice and eyes. “I don’t remember.”
Hunger flickers in Meg’s eyes now, tiny silver fish darting through a deep pool of hurt. Will seeing the Magician help, or add one more scar? Angie holds out her hand. Meg’s touch is insubstantial, but she takes it.
Here’s the secret to what Angie does: dying is easy. Being dead is hard. And coming back hurts like hell. But it’s easier if you’re not alone, and Angie doesn’t let go of Meg the entire time. She’s come a long way since the rabbit, but it’s an act of will, consciously holding space for Meg’s hand, bringing her—not back to life, but back as a ghost. The act leaves Angie’s vision bursting with grey and black stars. She has to steady herself against the dressing room table as she and Meg emerge.
“I’ve been looking all over for you.” The Magician puts his head around the doorway, impatient, distracted. “We’re about to start the show.”
He barely looks at Angie; he doesn’t see Meg at all. In Angie’s peripheral vision, Meg’s expression falls. She’s braced, but nothing can truly prepare her for the Magician failing to see her one last time.
“I won’t let go.” Angie adjusts her grip, straightens, and Meg follows her to the wings off the stage.
Angie keeps Meg grounded throughout the show. The extra effort turns her skull into an echo chamber, her bones grinding like tectonic plates shifting through the eons. When the bullet kisses the Magician’s flesh, Meg gasps. Once it’s done, and the Magician reappears in the back of the theater—a combination of misdirection and Angie’s resurrection magic—Meg finally releases her death grip on Angie’s hand. Love is a hard habit to shed; Meg applauds. Angie is the only one to hear the sound, and each clap sounds like the cracking of ancient tombstones.
The Magician makes his way back to the stage, smiling and waving the whole way. Circles of rouge dot the Magician’s cheeks. The lights spark off his teeth as Rory cycles through gel filters, making a rainbow of the Magician’s smile. He takes his bows, gathering the flowers and panties and hotel keys thrown his way. Meg’s features settle into something less than love, less than awe. She frowns, then all at once, her mouth forms a silent “o.”
“I remember why I came back,” she says.
“Come with me.” Angie slips out of the theater, not that anyone is looking for her to notice.
She keeps a room in the hotel attached to the theater, and there, Angie collapses onto her bed. Meg hovers near the ceiling, turning tight, distraught circles like a goldfish in a too-small bowl.
“I don’t know if it’s happened yet, or if it’s happening now.” Meg stops her restless spiraling and sits cross-legged, upside down. Her hair hangs toward Angie; if Meg were solid, it would tickle Angie’s nose.
“Can you show me?” Angie’s skull is as fragile as a shattered egg, but Meg came back for a reason, and Angie wants to know.
Meg stretches. Their fingers touch. The room shifts and if Angie had eaten anything besides the ghost of bacon and coffee in the diner inside Meg’s death, she’d be sick. Her body remains on the bed, but Angie’s self stretches taffy-thin, anchored in a hotel room at one end, hovering above a swirl of music and laughter and brightness at the other. She isn’t Angie; she isn’t fully Meg either. They are two in one, Angie and Meg, Meg-in-Angie.
And below them is the Magician.
He burns like a beacon. A sour vinegar taste haunts the back of Angie’s throat. Pickled cabbage and resentment, brine and regret. Angie can’t sort out which feelings are Meg’s and which are hers. She must have loved the Magician once upon a time. Didn’t she?
The room is full of strangers, but another familiar face catches Angie-Meg’s eye. Rory stands at the edge of a conversation where the Magician is the center. He sways, too much to drink, but also blown by the force of yearning, a tree with branches bent in the Magician’s wind.
Angie and Meg watch as Rory orbits closer, his need fever-bright. The Magician turns. He stops, puzzled at seeing something familiar anew. After so many years of being careful in the Magician’s presence, Rory’s desire is raw. Something has changed, or perhaps nothing has, and Rory is simply tired, hungry, willing to take a chance. And after so many years of looking right past his stage manager, the Magician finally sees something he needs—admiration, want, fuel for his fire. He sees love, and opens his mouth to swallow it whole.
A flick of the hand, a palmed coin, a card shot from a sleeve—the first and easiest trick the Magician ever learned and the one that’s served him best over the years. He turns on his thousand-watt smile, and Rory steps into that smile. Parallel orbits collide, and their kiss is a hammer blow, shattering Angie’s heart.
She gasps, coming up for air from the bottom of a pool. Meg floats facedown above the bed, a faint outline haloing her in the shape of wings. Tears drip endlessly from her eyes, but never fall.
Angie is angrier than she’s ever been.
It’s not the Magician’s infidelity. Like the Magician himself, she’s grown used to that. The Magician could kiss hundreds, flirt with thousands, fuck every person he meets, and Angie wouldn’t care. The kiss means nothing to the Magician, and to Rory it means the world. That, Angie can’t abide.
Rage widens cracks in Angie she hadn’t even known were there. She can see what will happen next, Rory fluttering to the ground in the Magician’s wake like a forgotten card. There’s already forgetting in the Magician’s eyes, his mind running ahead to the next show, the next trick, the thunder of applause.
Angie makes fists of her hands. She wanted better for Rory. She wanted him to be better. She wants to have been better herself. Smart enough to never have fallen for the Magician’s tricks, clever enough to see through the illusion and sleight of hand. Angie meets Meg’s eyes.
“We have to let the Magician die.”
A Rabbit’s Funeral
“Shit, shit, shit.” Heat from the asphalt soaked through Angie’s jeans where she knelt in the Magician’s parking lot, the shoebox by her side.
Tears dripped from the point of Angie’s nose and onto the rabbit’s fur. She’d woken in the Magician’s rumpled sheets, wondering if she was the first to see them twice, even three mornings in a row, and she’d found the rabbit curled next to the defunct radiator, empty as though he’d never contained life at all. Nothing she could do, no amount of power she could summon, would unravel his death again.
“Are you okay?” A shadow fell over her, sharp-edged in the light, and Angie looked up, startled.
“Yes. No. Shit. No. Sorry.” She wiped frantically at her face, leaving it smeared and blotchy.
The sun behind the man turned him into a scrap of darkness. Angie wished she’d brought sunglasses.
“I’m fine.” She stood and lifted her chin.
“You don’t look fine.” The man’s gaze drifted to the box.
Exhaustion wanted Angie to drop back to her knees, but she turned it into a deliberate motion, scooping the box against her chest and holding it close.
“I know that rabbit,” the man said. “The Magician—”
“The Magician. The fucking Magician.” Angie couldn’t help it—a broken laugh escaped her. She held the box out. “Do you know his name? It’s not Gus.”
“No.” The man looked genuinely regretful, and it made Angie like him instantly, and study him more closely.
The air smudged dark around his shoulders, curling them inward. A shadow haunted him, like the one clinging to the Magician, with the same flavor, but unlike the Magician, this man felt its weight.
“I’m Rory.” The man frowned at the box. “I’m the stage manager, I was looking for the Magician.”
“He’s out. I don’t know when he’ll be back. He doesn’t even know yet.” She indicated the box again.
Guilt tugged at her briefly, recalling the Magician’s grief at the bar, but Angie doubted she’d see such a display again. The Magician had already moved on, his head too full of plans for his own death and return, overfull with confidence not in her abilities, but that he was too important to properly die.
She caught disappointment in the stage manager’s eyes. Angie recognized it; Rory was as big a fool as she was, maybe bigger still. Like a compass point finding North, Rory’s gaze went to the Magician’s window. He didn’t have to count or search, pinpointing it immediately. Love was written plain on his skin, letters inches high that the Magician was too stupid to read.
“Will you help me bury him?” Angie held up the box, drawing Rory’s attention back, his expression smoothed into one of weary pain.
“I’m—” Angie stopped. She’d been about the say the Magician’s girlfriend. But they’d only just met; they’d fucked a few times. She’d brought his rabbit back from the dead, and that was the most intimate thing they’d shared.
“Angie.” She coughed.
Her name felt awkward, a ball of cactus thorns she wanted to spit out. Now it was her turn to glance at the building, though she had no idea which window belonged to the Magician. Dread prickled along her spine.
“I have a car.” Rory gestured. “We could bury him in the desert.”
Angie followed Rory across the parking lot. She climbed into the passenger seat, and set the box containing the dead rabbit in her lap. The car smelled faintly of cigarettes—old smoke, like Rory had quit long ago. Angie found it oddly comforting.
“I’m a Resurrectionist.” Angie tested the word. The Magician had suggested it last night, bathed in the after-sex glow. She tried it on for size. “I bring things back from the dead.”
She expected Rory to slam on the brakes, swerve to the side of the road and demand she get out. He did neither. She kept talking.
“Simple things fall apart more easily—mice, sparrows, rabbits.” She tapped the box, finger-drumming a sound like rain. Telling Rory her secret felt necessary, an act of defiance. The Magician didn’t own her or her truths, not yet.
“Small things know the natural order of the world. Only humans are arrogant enough to believe they deserve a second chance at life.”
Angie let her gaze flick to the side, finding Rory’s eyes for a brief moment before he turned back to the road.
“How about here?” Rory parked and they got out.
Desert wind tugged at Angie’s hair. She held the box close, sand and scrub grass crunching under her feet. Rory kept a small, collapsible shovel in the trunk of his car for emergencies, a habit held over from when he lived in a climate with much more snow. He also kept a Sharpie in his glove box, and once they’d dug a hole, and laid the rabbit inside, Angie chose a flat, sun-warmed rock and uncapped the pen.
“What should we write, since we don’t know his name?”
“He was a good rabbit. His name was his own.”
Angie scribed the words. The moment felt like a pact, and when Angie stood, she took Rory’s hand. The sun dragged their shadows into long ribbons, and at the same moment, they turned to look behind them, as if they’d heard their names called. The city glowed in the gathering dusk. The Magician was waiting for them.
How the Trick is Done
This is how it goes: Meg protests; she blushes translucent. She is dead, but she is afraid.
Angie points out how many people the Magician has hurt, how many more he will hurt still. Meg comes around to Angie’s point of view.
They tell Rory together, a united front. With Angie holding Meg’s hand, amplifying her form, Rory can see her. His eyes go wide, and his face becomes a glacier calving under its own weight. After his initial moment of shock, something like wonder takes over Rory’s face as he looks at Meg.
“You have wings.”
She blinks, spinning in place to try to see over her shoulder. The wonder on her face mirrors Rory’s, but the melancholy in her voice breaks Angie’s heart.
“I remember,” Meg says. “I think, once, I knew how to fly.”
“I should have…” Rory says, but he lets the rest of the sentence trail. Meg offers him a sad smile, telling him over and over again that her death is not his fault. Angie tells him that kissing the Magician was not a crime. Rory looks doubtful, but in the end, like Meg, he agrees. They need to let the Magician die.
Angie tells herself they are doing this for the dozens of lost souls, blown in like leaves from the strip, looking for magic, and instead finding the Magician. She tells herself it is not revenge. That he failed them more than they failed themselves. She thinks of late-night coffee, and early-morning champagne. All the opportunities she had to tell Rory that she knew he was in love with the Magician, to tell him to run. She savors her guilt, and pushes it down.
The one person they do not tell is the Magician’s Assistant, his current one. It is unfair, but she needs to be the one to fire the gun. Magic, true magic, requires a sacrifice, and none of them have anything left to give.
On the night the Magician dies, he asks for a volunteer from the audience. A hand rises, but the woman raising it feels a terrible chill, ghost fingers brushing her spine. She takes it as a premonition, and lets her hand fall. Rory trains the spotlight on the woman, on Meg behind her, and its brightness washes Meg away.
No other hands rise; the Magician’s Assistant accepts the gun with a smile, and Angie’s heart cracks for her. There is brightness in her eyes, curiosity. She believes. Not in the Magician specifically, but in the possibility of magic. She’s the Assistant for now, but her faith in the world tells her that she could be the Magician herself someday.
Rory shifts the spotlight to the stage. Bright white gleams off the Magician’s lapels, the Assistant’s costume sparks and shines. Angie watches the Magician preen.
There is a flourish, a musical cue. The Magician’s Assistant fires the gun. Angie holds her arms tight by her side. The bullet strikes home. A constellation of red scatters, raining like stars on the stunned front row. The Resurrectionist grits her teeth and trains her will to do nothing at all.
The Magician’s eyes widen. His mouth forms a silent “o.” He falls.
Dread blooms in the Magician’s Assistant’s stomach. The gun smokes in her hand.
Angie sweats in the wings. The Magician’s death tugs at her, demanding to be undone. It’s harder than she imagined not to knit the Magician back together. He is a hard habit to break, and she’s been turning back his death for so long.
She considers—is she the villain in this story? The Magician is callous, stupid maybe, and arrogant for sure. Angie is not a hapless victim. She made a choice; it just happened to be the wrong one. Rory and Meg, they are innocent. All they are guilty of is falling in love.
Angie does not tell the bullet to stop, or the Magician’s blood to go. She lets it run and pool and drip over the edge of the stage and onto the floor. All Angie can hope is to turn her regret into a useful thing.
Rory lets out a broken sob. His will breaks, and he runs onto the stage, folding to his knees to cradle the Magician’s head in his lap. Meg hovers above them. She spreads her wings, and their translucence filters the spotlight, lending the Magician’s death a blue-green glow.
Angie walks onto the stage. In the corner of her vision, the lights are blinding. The theater holds a collective breath. She thinks of a lonely grave in the desert, and a rabbit without a name. She thinks of Meg, falling endlessly. She thinks of Rory, his lips bruised with regret. Angie kneels, and looks the Magician in the eye. She knows death intimately, his most of all, and she knows he can still hear her.
“Dying is easy,” she says. “Being dead is hard. Coming back is the hardest part of all. See if you can figure out how the trick is done, this time all on your own.”
She leans back. It isn’t much, but it assuages her guilt to think he might figure out the secret, the catch, the concealed hinge. He might learn true magic, bend it to his will, and figure out how to bring himself back to life one day.
The Magician blinks. The spotlight erases Angie and Rory’s features; they blaze at the edges, surrounded by halos of light. Between them, a blurred figure occludes the lights. It reminds the Magician of someone he used to know, only he can’t remember her name.
“Is this…” The Magician’s fingertips grope at the stage as if searching for a card to reveal. Those are his final words.
Death and the Magician
Angie lets a month pass before she tracks down the Magician’s Assistant, his most recent one. They meet in an all-night diner, and Angie offers to pay.
The woman’s name is Becca, and she reminds Angie of a mouse. She starts easily, all shattered nerves. A dropped fork, bells jangling over the diner door—they all sound like gunshots to her, and her hands shake with guilt.
“It’s not your fault,” Angie says. “You did your job.”
Maybe one day Angie will admit the whole truth; maybe she’ll simply let it gnaw at her for the rest of her days, until she finds herself completely hollow inside.
“This is going to sound strange,” Angie says once they’ve finished their meals, “but how would you like your very own magic show?”
It isn’t enough, certainly not after what Angie has done, but it makes her feel slightly better to think she is offering Becca the chance to live her dream. The pain is still there in Becca’s eyes, but Angie sees a spark of curiosity and something like hope.
“Tell me,” Becca says; by her voice, she is hungry to learn.
The act that replaces the Bullet-Catch-Death-Cheat looks like something old, as all the best tricks do, building on what came before and paying homage, while being something completely new. Every night, the Magician summons a ghost onto the stage. It must be an illusion, audiences say. Smoke and angled mirrors, just like Pepper back in the day. Only, the ghost knows answers to questions she couldn’t possibly know. She finds lost things, things their owner didn’t even know were gone. Sometimes she leaves the spotlight and flies over the audience, casting the shadow of wings, and creating a wind that ruffles their hair. Sometimes she reaches out and touches one of them, and in that instant, they know without a doubt that she is absolutely real.
The ghost looks familiar, and so does the Magician. The audience can’t place either woman, but something about them calls to mind spangly leotards and pasted-on smiles. They look like people who used to be slightly out of focus, standing just on the edge of the spotlight, out of range of the applause. Now they’ve moved center stage, and their smiles are real, and they positively glow.
Angie no longer watches from the wings as the show goes on. Meg is strong enough now that she no longer needs Angie to ground her, and Becca and Rory are just fine on their own. Perhaps one day, Angie will slip away from the theater altogether, though she isn’t sure where she’ll go.
For now though, she sits backstage in front of the mirror and looks the old magician in the eye.
As she does, she learns what death looks like for him, and thinks about what it will look like for her when her own time comes. Sometimes it looks like the darkest depths of a top hat, endlessly waiting for the arrival of a rescuing hand. Sometimes it looks like a party where everyone is a stranger, and no one ever looks your way. Every now and then, it looks like a diner at 1:47 a.m. and a heart waiting to be broken.
But most of all, it looks like a brightly-lit stage in a theater packed with people, utterly empty of applause.
(Editors’ Note: “How the Trick is Done” is ready by Erika Ensign and A.C. Wise is interviewed by Lynne M. Thomas on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 29B.)
© 2019 A.C. Wise