I roll my sleeves up to my elbows and take one last look in the small mirror hanging to my right. Beneath dark strands of hair, black-lined eyes flash with uncontained eagerness. Their engorged pupils mostly hide gold-flecked blue irises. They always look like this just before the curtain goes up.
Just beyond the wall of fabric dividing me from my audience, fragments of conversations fuse together and flitter to my ears. To any other person the sounds and syllables of each broken sentence would create a chain of meaningless nonsense. But to me, they are strung together in such a perfect way they cause my nerves to whine with excitement. “Magician,” “illusionist,” “a fake,” “an act,” “how much longer?” Ah, what bliss to savor the anticipation; they are starving for me, and I drink in every drop of their expectations and accusations alike.
I shake out my arms and roll my neck to loosen and warm my muscles, preparing for the surge of blood about to storm through my veins, and the brilliant energy that will race alongside them. In moments, raging heat will consume me, and with pleasure, I will lose myself in it, inviting it to ignite every cell in my body. The curtain cannot open soon enough.
The lights dim, and the hum of a long single note resonates within the walls of the red tent, suspending half spoken words in mid air. I bring the inside of my wrist to my lips and kiss the inked dragonfly.
The music ripens into a haunting rhythm drowning out the roar of the roller coaster and the screams that follow as it falls back to the ground. As the curtain opens one hundred pairs of eyes return my stare. Their expressions are the usual collection of amusement, suspicion, disbelief, and even a fair amount of hope as they search my face for the truth.
I reveal nothing.
The black satin cloth slips between my fingers as I grasp the corner of it. Expecting to possess each one of their morbid curiosities, I open my arms and pull away the smooth cloth. The spectators’ gazes fall to the three small tables between us. Murmurs and whispers escape their open mouths. I steal my attention away from the audience and focus on the dead things surrounding me.
Some of my guests fidget in their seats; others are motionless, but all appear impatient to see the phenomenon they’ve paid their five bucks to witness. In the second row, a teenage girl with red hair looks up from the tables to me. Her eyes are wide. She inhales sharply, puffing up her already too large chest. I glare at her, feeding on her apprehension as she reaches for the hand of the blonde girl sitting next to her. Redhead’s eyes dart from me to the stage. I tilt my head, focus in on her, intent on nurturing her anxiety, she is after all a witness to a freak show. She cowers, tucking herself deeper into her seat, and looks down at her lap.
The blonde looks at me and leans into the redhead and I hear her say, “Don’t be such a wuss. Besides, he’s hot.” And then she winks lasciviously at me.
These are the moments I feel like a rock star, and there’s no other place than on this stage I’d rather be. It’s that shot of adrenaline that triggers the unnatural energy inside of me. The feverish excitement rides along my veins as I pick up the butterfly by one of its delicate blue wings.
A fat woman in the front row eyes me with skepticism. Her dress has risen and settled on her thighs, presenting me with the mortifying view of thick calves stuffed into flesh colored socks reminiscent of horrid sausages straining to burst forth from their restrictive casings. To her left, a boy about eight or nine sits as still as a cactus in the desert. His eyes are nearly glazed over and his mouth hangs open as if I’ve already performed my trick. The woman holds one of his hands in both of hers on her lap. She kneads her fingers over his, the movements animating the purple and yellow flowers on her dress.
“Young man, would you like to assist me?” My tone is deep and insinuating.
His mouth closes, and he points to his chest. Wide-eyed he whispers, “Me?”
“Yes. You, in the red shirt.”
He looks down at his red t-shirt and then up to the fat woman. His head bounces up and down. A plea spreads over his freckled face, as if his dream to be a freak’s assistant has finally come true, and she’s the only one standing in his way.
Hesitantly, she releases his hand. He tears out of her grip and climbs onto the stage, not bothering to use the stairs, and hurries to my side.
“What is your name?” I inquire. He smells of rotten fruit and dirt, the pungent odors of a boy who hasn’t yet found the marvelous invention of deodorant.
“Riley,” he says. His lips are outlined with a caked-on white substance. His fingers twist around and through each other like a ball of knotted, writhing snakes.
“Please welcome Riley.” The audience claps for the pudgy boy.
“May I put this dead butterfly in your hand?”
“Yeah! Yeah!” His smile divides his face in two, and he opens his hand. White speckles dot his fingertips. No doubt, the same as the once powdery sugar that’s around his mouth.
I place the insect on his palm. “Do you believe the butterfly is dead?”
He studies the motionless insect and shakes his hand, as if the jarring might wake it from a deep sleep. After poking at its bulbous head, Riley nods in short bursts and says, “It’s dead.”
“Thank you,” I say.
I wait a few more beats and for effect only, circle my hand over the butterfly’s lifeless body. The boy’s nerves get the better of him and he shifts from one foot to the other. I place my free hand under his to keep it steady. “Riley, please stay still,” I whisper.
“Sorry.” He bites his lip nervously.
The music heightens and intensifies. Each blow to the invisible drum matches my pounding heart. The energy begins to writhe inside me. Everything under the tent fades as I focus on the unexplained vigorous force taking over my body. My eyes dance in rapid jerky movements behind my lids, and the fierce flood of heat courses through me. Scorched streams of energy furiously wake each cell in my now slightly vibrating body.
I open my eyes and touch the butterfly. A single drop of sweat rolls down the side of my face as the intensity of the energy leaves my body. Waves of dizziness immediately take its place. The creature mere moments ago, void of life, once again comes alive. It flexes its wings as if emerging from the cocoon for the first time, and then lifts each leg until all six have exercised the movement.
Gasps echo throughout the tent. Riley’s eyes are huge as he stares at the butterfly moving on his palm. I raise the boy’s hand so the audience can see the creature is alive, and the movement sends the butterfly into flight. As if rehearsed, it flies over a spot light, magnifying it a thousand times against the backdrop of the tent. The audience “oohs” and “ahs” as they watch the butterfly flutter over them. Arms reach up, eager to touch it, but it flies to the tallest part of the tent and disappears into the darkness.
From the corner of my eye I see a streak of pink—CeCe, my little sister, dressed in a tutu. The curtain veils her from the audience. I imagine the smile on her face, and her brown ringlets bouncing with excitement. She is, by far, my number one fan. Her happiness is infectious and it pulls a smile from me.
Whistles from the audience resonate around me; they clap and yell for more. Their excitement stirs the simmering warmth inside my bones, and I’m impatient to continue.
I thank Riley and guide him to the stairs. He turns and looks up at me, his mouth once again gaped open. “You were the best assistant I’ve had the pleasure of working with. In fact, you were so good, you yourself might have a future as a Freak.” His face beams with undeniable happiness. The audience chuckles, all except the fat woman. She’s glaring at me with pure hatred as she grasps the boy’s hand and returns it to her lap. I flash her a wicked smile and wink.
When I glance up, Zane, my best friend, gives me the corona gesture and mouths, “You rock.” Half of him is tucked in the shadows behind the audience. The unhidden half flickers in the light. He lifts the corner of his mouth and the metal spikes and rings piercing his entire face glint from the light hanging to his left. I stifle the grin that threatens my lips, and lower my eyes to the corpse on the second table.
The dead frog feels like a flattened rubber ball in my hand. Wart-like bumps are scattered over its dark green body. The energy continues to weave itself through my body like a slinking reptile, begging to be released. And this time, without an assistant, I repeat the process. When I pull away my hand, lightheadedness creeps into the crevices of the relinquished energy. Fatigue, a recently found acquaintance, greets me early this evening. I spread my arms to the audience, more to steady myself than to imply they are witnessing greatness.
After the third resurrected corpse scurries off the stage, I thank the audience for attending and give a final bow as the black velvet curtain falls and pools in front of my feet. My head falls to my chest, and my shoulders slump surrendering to the exhaustion.
“Erik, you were fantastic,” my dad says as he slaps me on the shoulder.
I offer him a tired smile. “Thanks.”
“Hey, you okay?”
I should have tried to hide the weakness I feel, but that would have taken more energy than I had to give right now. “Yeah, I’m fine.” I plaster a smile on my face that I hope looks convincing.
His eyes gleam in the spotlights; they portray skepticism tempered with pride. He nods and forces a smile of his own. “Watching you night after night makes me want to start performing again.” A proud father that, up until four years ago, was a great illusionist in his own right. Then one night he put his thirteen-year-old son on the stage and laid a dead dragonfly at my feet, and I did what only comes natural to me. The theatrics of it were never planned or practiced, and without any uncertainty, word of my performance spread and gathered many and they wanted more.
I pull back the curtain and see the last of the crowd have left.
“Your mom and CeCe should be back soon. I bet they’ll sell out tonight.” At the end of my performances, CeCe and my mom sell autographed pictures of me at the exit. Most of the audience buys them; they’re still on the high from the show and want whatever memorabilia they can get.
“You look tired. Why don’t you head in and we’ll be over after we finish here?” He lifts the bottom of the tent and nudges the frog through the small hole. It hops away.
As I leave through the back of the tent, I sense someone watching me. About twenty feet away, a man leans against the supporting rope of a tent. His arms are crossed over his chest, and he’s staring in my direction.
With my attention on the man, I didn’t notice the little girl standing next to me. Blonde pigtails frame her doll-like face. A pink purse hangs on her shoulder, and she’s holding a bag of cotton candy. “Yes?”
“I just saw you bring those dead things back to life.” Her voice is shaky like she’s been crying. The light is sparse in the alley behind the tents, but there’s just enough of a glow to catch the streaks of wetness forging trails from her eyes.
I glance up and the man hasn’t moved. His expression is barely readable, but his guarded stance suggests I proceed with caution. Unnerved, I rub the back of my neck.
“Was it real?” the little girl asks.
A request. One I’ve been asked a thousand times before. Now all of this makes sense. She wants me to bring Fluffy or Rover back from the dead. People come to the carnival to be entertained. The only thing that needs to be real, and I want to be real, is the illusion I bring back the dead. Nothing else. But, out of all the people that come to my show, the children are the most difficult to fool. They believe what their eyes see. Adults are easy to deceive; they’re immune to magic, enchantment, and fairy-tales alike. Sad really, but it’s a belief I thrive upon. I’d rather be in a freak show than a science lab.
Avoiding her question, I ask, “What’s your name?”
“It’s nice to meet you, Sophie.” I put my hand out for her to shake, but she ignores the gesture and pushes her small purse farther up onto her shoulder.
“It looked pretty real to me.”
“I’m glad. It sounds like you enjoyed the show.”
As if I’d never spoken, she asks, “Can you bring back my mama?”
Her mother. Why couldn’t she want me to resurrect her dead goldfish or hamster? Not that I would have, but that request would have been a hell of a lot easier to dismiss. I close my eyes and try to shut out the sight of this motherless child. The lights from the Ferris wheel blaze behind my lids. Nubby balls of fabric rub against my fingertips as I dig my hands into the pockets of my jeans. I’ve never wanted to have the talent of Houdini, the man I was named after, but I would give anything to be able to escape this moment.
When I open my eyes, Sophie is looking at me, waiting for an answer. She reminds me of CeCe, not in looks, but age, and most of all, her bravery. My fatigue multiplies as I watch this little girl suffer for want of her dead mother. Her pain, her plea, her desperate hope is etched on her face and I have to look away.
The mass of air I suck in tastes sour. I kneel down so we are eye level, giving her the respect she deserves. “Sophie, I wish I could, but that’s not something I can do.” As the words leave me, I’ve never felt so helpless.
She says nothing else as the hope slides down her cheeks. Her arms slack at her sides and her pigtails flop forward with the fall of her head.
“I’m sorry.” The need to comfort her is overwhelming. But, I stand and do nothing except fight the urge to fold in on myself.
Without another word, she turns away from me and walks toward the man propped against the rope. Her purse falls off her shoulder, and the bag of cotton candy drags on the ground. He gives me a slight wave. I return a nod that I hope conveys the regret and remorse I feel. He holds out his hand, the little girl puts her small one into it and they walk into the blinking lights of the carnival. I collapse to my knees with unbearable exhaustion and the bitter taste of regret in my mouth.
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