Church Burning

PDF icon

It got to the point where the town decided they’d just have to burn it down.  There didn’t seem to be any other way to it, though this realization came after many hours of discussion and sometimes heated argument.  The church-elder meeting that Wednesday evening ended with the menfolk agreeing with the Methodist preacher at last; the Baptist church down by the eastern outskirts (which had up until recently been a gathering place for sings and barbecues and kickball games) had become tainted with the Wormwood, and no amount of prayer or inaction would cleanse it.  To the Methodists this was no great loss; they bore no ill will towards the Baptists, naturally, but by this sign it became clear to all concerned which establishment was blessed by God, and which was not.  The Baptists refuted this, and their pastor had indeed given a powerful sermon on how the Wormwood was a test, not a punishment, but the Methodists and their fair-weather allies the Pentecostals were rightly afraid, and whatever the cause or reason for the tainting, all agreed that something must be done lest it spread and perhaps breed more hideous things to crawl under and about other houses and barns.  The Baptists had argued for clemency, continued prayers and blessings, and there were whispers in the back of the room about sending for an Exterminator, but this was struck down as soon as it was offered.  The people of Malone were proud if they were anything, and even the Baptists agreed that this was an internal affair, and of no concern to Dothan city-folk or any of their ilk. With options failing superstition and rumor ruled the meeting, for there were only two certainties: one, the Baptist church had Wormwood growing, and two, the taint came from the east, from whence all unnatural things come.  By raised hands and solemn nods even the Baptists agreed, some with tears streaming down their faces, to gather together and burn their former house of worship to the ground.

Counting only willing and able-bodied men, the town of Malone contained fifty-eight firebugs that evening.  With the rest stowed safely away in the sanctum sanctorum of the Methodist Church, the Methodist men as well as the Baptists and the Pentecostals joined together at the Volunteer Fire Department to plan the method of attack.  They ranged in age from sixteen to seventy-one.  A precious few had shotguns or pistols, the rest were armed with farming implements such as pitchforks and machetes.  Some had torches made of “fat-lightern,” but these remained unlit, and appeared as huge, knotted clubs in the dark.  One boy had a slingshot which he fingered nervously, sliding a stone into its leather cradle, taking aim, and then bringing it down again only to repeat the process.  There were dogs too, mutts mostly, and there were some that could be recognized by a nearsighted judge as some large working breed or other.  The clamor of dogs and men would have been deafening had the occasion been to fire steaks and shuck oysters, and there would have been wives and babies crawling all over, playing games and laughing and such, but the womenfolk were crowded in Methodist pews, clutching their babies and praying hard. Even the dogs seemed to know the severity of the situation, so they laid their ears back and were silent. Just as their masters were silent.

The preachers talked together briefly, in whispers, and it was decided that they would wait for dawn to start the burning.  Rumor told that only a fool would hunt the creatures of the Wormwood at night, and for once the messenger had spoken true.  The men huddled together and didn’t sleep, nor did they talk to each other; instead spending the five hours between midnight and dawn in prayer, clutching to the iron of their guns, and moving their lips to the Apostle’s Creed or to the Lord’s Prayer, those staples of poor and frightened men called upon to do bloody but necessary work.  The dogs were turned out of doors to range as they would.  Dogs could be counted on to smell evil and report it. And the men were confident enough in their dogs to know that each of them would die before allowing the Wormwood into the town proper, and none would be quiet about it. Thus Malone kept watch, waiting and listening, and only the smallest of the children slept at all.

Dawn broke with pink and orange and no sign of Jesus, just as it had for countless days before.  Gabriel had held off blowing his trumpet for another day, and so the men rose of one accord and prepared themselves.  The firehouse, situated in the center of town between the general store and the Pentecostal church, was a good quarter of a mile away from the Baptist Church, and was the last building passed if a traveler was moving east towards Mount Olive, but the first encountered if coming from the other way out of the Wormwood.  Mount Olive, as far as any of them knew, was still a grouping of a dozen or so houses and farms exclusively for colored and Freewill Baptist, whom had lived in quiet harmony with the people of Malone for time immemorial.  However, that information was almost two weeks old, having been conveyed by a peddler of some repute for whom Mount Olive was the last stop on a route that extended back far to the west.  He had come through town speaking only of having done decent business with the coloreds and told no other news.  It was thought that with the way things had progressed the peddler would be turning around in Malone the next time, for no wagons had come from Mount Olive since, and it was on the following Sabbath that the taint was discovered at the Baptist Church.  The fate of Mount Olive was clucked about, but only briefly, for the taint was a more pressing concern now that it had spread even into Malone itself.

The preachers led the way each with an open Bible in one hand held out in front, like a salute or a warding, and a jug of precious kerosene in the other.  The Methodist minister began quoting the Twenty-Third Psalm and his two companions picked up the cadence, each in the powerful, sonorous voices that had made them so impressive in the pulpit.  The men clustered behind them not in military formation, but in a sort of ordered disarray. They walked in scattered groups of two or three, fathers with sons, neighbors with neighbors, and yet all remained in step, either consciously or unconsciously, mimicking exactly the determined strides of their leaders.  The dogs formed a sort of half-circle around the men and faced straight ahead forsaking the horseplay and barking of any other less important day.  When the Psalm ended it started again among the preachers, and then someone in the back started singing an old hymn with a strange-sounding but appropriate name.  The Psalm mingled with the strains of “The Battle-Hymn of the Republic,” and those men who had torches lit them.

The main street of Malone was dirt mostly, though it had been paved at one time in its history, and time had reduced the asphalt to large rocky patches irregularly spaced and forever pushed together by grass and clay.  West of Malone the road still carried some of the dignity of its former life. It was still called Highway 2, an ancient name less important-sounding than perhaps it should have been.  But Malone was almost as far east as anyone dared to go and Dothan felt further upkeep to be wasteful of precious funds so the Malonians had made do with what they had and spread clay everywhere to even things out.  On this day, however, even the road itself had a sort of prideful bearing because an army was marching down it.  With red dust swirling in their wake and hymn and Psalm projecting in front the villagers did seem more like an avenging army than a mob. They had a purpose, a cause, and their cause was righteous.  They could see the First Baptist Church of Malone not long after they began, a yellow-brick, squat building with a wooden roof and a decently tall steeple, white, topped by a cross.  There used to be two pecan trees between the army and its destination–tall ancient trees that had once spread out over the roof of the church and, when green, almost completely obscured it from view.  They were gone, or at least transformed, for one had lost all its leaves and was black and oozing from the highest branch to the lowest root.  The other was much worse for the wear. Somehow it had been sheared off at a point about as high as a man and its great forty-foot bulk had crashed into the road, leafless and ashen.  The men said nothing about these portents. They did not whisper about what could have killed two huge trees, broken off one, and blighted the grass in a great circle with the church at its center.  They all knew what had done it, and it wasn’t anything natural or cleansing like fire.  It was the taint of Wormwood which no green thing could survive for long.

The men did not break stride, did not falter, until the preachers themselves stopped at the edge of the blighted grass.  Psalm and hymn ceased. The Methodist preacher, as the leader, turned his back to the church and faced his men.  The other two preachers kept their eyes and Bibles focused on the church from which a phosphorescent glow emanated and a sound like a hundred rattlesnakes struck up.

“Let us pray,” intoned the Methodist preacher, his voice carrying over the rattlesnake-sound.  For the first time ever, no one bowed their heads or closed their eyes, instead staring straight ahead at the church, casting their prayers against it.

“Lord God in heaven, we are gathered here in Your name, to raise our hands–”

One of the blue stained-glass windows blew out with a crash, the rattling increased, and something that looked a lot like a gigantic octopus tentacle shot out and wrapped itself around the trunk of the still-upright pecan tree.  The Methodist men and Baptists prayed silently, eyes open, while the Pentecostals prayed aloud, joining their voices with that of the preacher, as is their custom.

“–against Satan and his evil seed, the Wormwood.  Dear Lord, we ask for Your protection, and if it be Your will for us to prevail today, we ask for Your strength, in this our hour of need–”

The main church doors were facing the street, and they exploded outward, clattering across the road.  Another huge tentacle, mottled gray with suction cups spaced irregularly around it, followed one of the doors and picked it up.  It then reared high in the air like the neck of a dinosaur and flung the door towards the preachers.  No one so much as flinched as it fell harmlessly short, the prayers continued even over the rattling.

“For it is written that You will never leave us, or forsake us.  Lord Jesus, march before us today, give us Your holy blessing, so that we might be victorious!  In Jesus’ holy name we pray–”

Amen!” yelled the throng together, so that it sounded more like a battle cry than the ending of a prayer.  Then, with undaunted purpose, the preachers stepped into the blighted grass-circle, and the men spread out around it.  Those with shotguns and rifles took aim and at a shouted command shot at the tentacle of their choice.  The standing tree collapsed as the tentacle retreated while the rattling intensified until it was a hissing whine.

“Prepare, foul demons, for the wrath of God!” shouted the Pentecostal minister, striding towards the church, lighting the rag stuffed in the mouth of his jug. A third tentacle shot out through the shingles, and then a fourth, but the Pentecostal’s aim was true, his jug shattered on the roof.  As the kerosene blazed up the middle window collapsed in on itself and a flood of jet-black things scurried out.  Whether they were mostly beetle, spider, or hyena is up to dispute. They were huge, awful conglomerations of legs and teeth and hair, the size of dogs with hard carapaces and clicking, slathering mouthparts.  They moved like cockroaches, streaming away from the fire and towards the circle of men.

The dogs intercepted as best they could spurred on by that fierce loyalty to master and home that only dogs know, but the resulting battle was like a naked man fighting a lawnmower.  Half of a large brown retriever-mix hit the Baptist minister in the knee as he was in the process of lighting his kerosene.  He fell sprawling and in a trice the beetle-things were on him, half a dozen of them clicking and slashing.  The feast would have lasted longer, but the jug of kerosene ignited and flamed the lot.  The beetle-things did not burn like normal creatures; something in their foul nature caused them to be more flammable then perhaps the kerosene itself.  As the men with torches charged in the remains of the Baptist minister burned brightly with six or seven hollowed out and crispy exoskeletons burning with him.

This event proved, in less than a second, yet another storybook rumor about the vile things of Wormwood–that fire is the cleanser of God among them.  The torches were as useful as the shotguns against the beetle-things, merely a touch and a dodge was enough to dispatch them.  Some of the men were too slow to dodge and they paid dearly for it. For the rest it was a turkey-shoot since a sharp-eyed farmer with buckshot is more than a match for anything under the sun.  Some of the things were blown into unrecognizable bits of shell and ichor, others burned as quickly as a gasoline-soaked cotton ball.  Soon the dogs and men presided over a burning field of thing-corpses, and, though the men and dogs who lost their lives lost them in gruesome ways, thankfully there were not many dead.  The men advanced on the church with renewed vigor like soldiers who had breached a barricade.  The Methodist preacher lit his jug and threw it, with the blessing of God it seemed, for the jug disappeared into the window from whence came the black things.  It exploded soon after, shaking the foundations.  The rattling became a squeal, and the tentacles spasmed briefly and stopped.

The men with axes and shovels attacked the dying tentacles, chopping and hacking; it wasn’t long before the tentacles caught fire as well and were consumed.  Then there was nothing left to do but watch the church burn.

Mr. Big Stuff

The crackling fire filled the silence among the group of strangers. Shadows danced around the surrounding forest, smoky embers rising into the cloudy night sky.

“This should do for now,” said a tall, strong-jawed man. He dropped a few twigs onto the fire and then settled down, pulling his long coat tighter. He cast a glance at a couple beside him, who smiled back. They had seemed to be the most useful so far, knowing how to start the fire and keep it from burning through the forest.

The rest of the group remained silent. Little had been said for some time.

It had been a few hours since their bus had crashed on the highway, swerving to avoid a deer. Although no one had seen the deer except for the driver, who had died sometime later. The only casualty. Now all that remained were the nine strangers. The bus was a turned-over wreck, and no cars appeared on the dark highway, so all that remained was finding shelter and keeping warm. They just had to survive the night, then find a way back to civilisation.

“Does anyone have any stories?” said a young girl huddled beside her boyfriend. Her wide eyes sparkled in the fire light.

A rotund man with a goatee shook his head, smiling. “What a good idea. It’ll help pass the time.” He looked around the fire-lit group. “Anyone have anything?”

Another man shook his head. “You don’t wanna hear my stories, man.”

The strangers looked between each other; some looked away.

“I have a story.” This came from an old, white-haired man who had yet to speak since the crash. “One of magic, immortality, and eternal tragedy.”

“What, like a fairy tale?” someone said.

The old man shook his head, his frown creasing his wrinkled features. “Not a fairy tale. This is the story of a man named Mr. Big Stuff.”

***

Snow fell over the small mountain town. White roofs were highlighted by the wavering lights coming from hundreds of little windows. The wind howled upon the cliff top, but I was numb to the bitter chill that night.

I stood there now, like I had stood many times before, overlooking the snowy town, my boots on the edge of the cliff. A moment that had once brought a serene bliss had now become a hollow, bitter resentment.

I have gone by many names in my hundreds of years, chained to this world as an immortal being. While my birth name has long been forgotten – if I was even born – the name that has stuck with me the longest is Mr. Big Stuff. A strange moniker, for sure, but one that came from a special person, so long ago.

The origins of immortals like me, of which there are few, have become lost throughout time. Some stories have been told of us, however, from the few that have seen more than our quiet human costumes. Those who have witnessed a bloodied battle, magical spells, or our heightened agility, have re-written us as fantastical beings. Some call us Vampires, although I have never sucked blood or turned into a bat.

My sigh blew a puff of smoke into the wintery air. I brought out a vial, its luminous blue liquid a beacon of light in the darkness. The light illuminated the specks of blood on my hands.

This is what I have struggled for, I tell myself. Everything has led to this potion. Drinking this will make me mortal. Make me killable. I cast another look down over the cliff, at the darkness below.

I could finally end it all, so easily. Return to the darkness that had likely spawned me.

What good is this life I have been given, if I can never truly live it? Despite the love I’ve known, the love I’ve given, it all ends the same way – me alone. But this vial can change that.

I look over my blood-stained hands, and the specks sprayed over my dark coat. So much death, so much hatred.

The horrified faces of my foes still flash through my mind. Ripping through their flesh, tearing limbs, I was a whirlwind of blood and death. Seven beings, once-immortal, were now a pile of mutilated flesh.

At least I know that this potion actually works.

The liquid was synthesised from a fabled crystal, known as a God Killer. A crystal that, when eaten, could turn an immortal into a mortal who would age and die. It had been a decades-long task of mine to find and bring the crystal to those men.

They had been so happy when I finally brought the crystal to them, not knowing that I’d synthesised a part of it into a liquid – which I had dropped into their wine.

I admit to taking pleasure in their shocked faces when they realised something was wrong. There was also pleasure when I attacked them, and they discovered they were mortal. Sprayed blood was highlighted by the flashes of sorcery thrown about. Decades of resentment and hatred unleashed on them.

I had to do it, I tell myself. Their hold on me was too strong, and I had caused so much destruction for them. But now I was free.

Not that it mattered anymore. My love had passed away, just a month ago.

“No more pain,” she had said to me. Her frail form was nestled in bed, her light slowly fading. “No more pain for me. And, promise me, my love, no more pain for you.”

I gripped her hand, feeling the loose skin of her wrinkled fingers. Six decades together had not been enough.

“Peace, Lucas,” she said quietly. “Let my death bring us both peace.”

Melina was the strongest, most special person I had ever known. Far greater than this world deserved. I had told her everything about me, and she accepted it all. When we vowed to spend our lives together, it meant turning our backs on civilisation. We moved to an old castle of mine in the Carpathian Mountains, only visiting the nearby towns and cities on occasion. No one could really know us, and see that I was not aging.

“Please, do not return to those men,” she said, pausing to cough and grimace.

“I promise,” I whispered. “Once you pass, there is nothing more for me.”

Melina smiled weakly. “Never use it, for any purpose. Please. It can do no good.”

We both knew that she spoke of the crystal, the God Killer, and of those evil men I was bound to.

“It will remain with me, I promise. There is no more vengeance left in me.” Even back when I said those words, I knew I was lying.

Melina turned away slightly, her eyes slowly closing. “I will tell the angels of Mr. Big Stuff. And they will tell me they have heard of you.”

I held her hand tighter, sorrow tightening my throat. Despite her aging, her mortal shell withering over the years, she remained the same person I loved. It was a remarkable thing.

“I will see you some day, my love,” I said, fighting back the tears.

Her expression softened, a small smile remaining. Then she became still.

The tears finally fell, and I remember strangely regretting not crying earlier, so that she could see my tears. But she would remember me being strong, and that was a good thing.

We had both come a long way since we first met, which had been strange circumstances indeed.

It was during a battle with a great enemy of mine. My foe and I were bounding through the city streets in an uncommon public display of our powers. Our darting forms must have been dark blurs in the night, although no one could miss our magical bursts.

A car was thrown into the air, hurtling towards a woman in the street below. I dove off a building, streaming down to catch the car just before it crushed her. Despite the moment – my physical exhaustion and the on-going battle – my breath was taken by Melina’s bright green eyes. Oddly, I remember smiling at her.

The heat from an oncoming blast of sorcery brought my urgency back, and I spun and caught the energy with the car, which melted in my hands.

My enemy landed in front of me, her hands blazing with the purple fire of Fie magic. She extinguished the flames and stepped forwards. Behind me, the shocked woman ran for cover.

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” I told the sorceress, Alryan.

A heavy cloak flowed behind her, revealing the tight combat clothing beneath. A streetlight showed her long face, firmly set, her dark eyes shining. Her shoulder-length hair fluttered in the wind – much shorter than the long, sleek look she had when I last saw her. She raised her gauntleted hands and shook her head.

“Look around us, Mister,” she said, her voice breathy from the fight. “It’s too late for it to be any other way. It was always going to come down to this.”

I sighed and shook my head. “I never wanted it to, Alryan,” I said, frowning. “Not like this.”

My shirt was ripped and mostly hanging off me, smudges of dirt over my arms and trousers. Her left shoulder was bloodied. How did it all come to this?

I darted into the air, pushing off a window sill and landing onto a rooftop. At this time of night the streets were mostly empty, although I knew that several people were watching us and I wanted to take the fight away from them.

While Alryan wasn’t an immortal, she possessed superior magical abilities to me. But she was still mortal. While she was planning on overpowering me, likely intending to chain me up or keep me somewhere far away for eternity, I knew what I had to do.

The fight took us across the rooftops to a nearby riverside. I managed to barge into her, gripping her tight as we fell through the air and crashed into the water.

She struggled to throw surge after surge of sorcery, but we plunged further into the dark depths. Although breathing under water was not a problem for me, she only had minutes left. Her expression grew pained, her eyes widening, but I held on to her and dragged us down further.

I would never forget her face at that moment. Somewhat pleading, shocked, and something sorrowful. I’d like to think it was regret, a plea to start over. But it was too late. Alryan was taken from me. I had taken her from this world.

I know there was no other way.

But it wasn’t always like that, between her and me. We were lovers for many years, drawn together under the strain of tragedy. We were the best of friends before she changed. No, that wasn’t true. Maybe I changed. Maybe we just grew apart, because it wasn’t the same for a long while.

When she found out a dark truth of mine she erupted with fury. Sorcery entered our arguing and she attacked me then. Her anger brought the building down around us, and while I escaped, she was crushed under the rubble. Or so I had presumed for many years, until she returned, far more powerful, and tried to kill me.

I have never known anyone to possess as much passion and perseverance as Alryan Aldobrasse. She was a descendant of an ancient race of witches, and one of my greatest loves.

Before we became enemies – before we became lovers – we were students under the same mentor.

We trained and studied in a monastery in the mountains, under the mentorship of Yenophis Creel. As a young woman, she witnessed the murder of Yenophis. That face she made when I drowned her was similar to her horrified expression as Yen was killed, torn apart by a figure wreathed in shadow. I could never forget either of those expressions.

It was clear why Yen had been killed, for he possessed the only remaining God Killer crystal in the world. The only one that was known of, anyway. The dark creature took the crystal as it departed, never to be seen again.

Yen was the closest to a father figure I had ever known. I trained under him for many years, discovering the ancient art of Fie sorcery and gaining mental and spiritual strength. He was the wisest, most sincere man I have ever known. While Yen was an immortal like me, he was of a kind that could be killed by conventional means. That he had lived for over four hundred years was a testament to his abilities and strength, and it took a very dark creature to take him down.

Alryan became a student of Yen’s at nine years old; an orphan who had somehow stumbled upon the monastery in her wanderings. Yen saw this as fate, and agreed to bring her under his tutelage.

It was strange at first, me a grown man, learning alongside a young girl, but Alryan and I eventually became friends. I watched her blossom into a young woman, strong willed and fierce. We shared many great times together, visiting the mountain villages, sailing off the coast. Yen and I both marvelled at her feats in conjuring magic. It would be later that we’d learn of Alryan’s magical heritage.

One night, she and I stumbled upon a hidden room within the monastery. We were in awe of a small chest hidden in the ground. It was there we found the God Killer crystal. Yen appeared, full of bluster and anger, but he explained the crystal’s power to us. When swallowed, it could turn an immortal into a mortal, who would grow old and be killable. The crystals once belonged to his people, he told us, and this was the last that remained. I later wondered if his people’s prolonged exposure to the crystal was what had caused them to become killable immortals. Perhaps they were like me, once. But no one had those kinds of answers, as far as I knew.

I was a far different man when I first entered that monastery. Homeless, aimless – a wreck. I had heard of Yen and his teachings and was greatly relieved when he agreed to help me.

My time in that monastery contained some of the most pleasant and enlightening experiences of my life.

That all ended the night Yen was killed. Alryan ran away, and I was left all alone.

Alone, like I should be. Like I deserve to be.

I never wanted my life to go in the direction it did. I have owned many lands and properties, seen the world shift and communities grow and dissolve. I have possessed a great wealth, as well as lived without a penny to my name.

It seemed that those evil men knew just the moment to find me. How they knew of me, I couldn’t say. But there I was, a bum in the streets, having given up on life. I was ashamed at how weak I was, but could see no other way to go. A depression had taken hold of me. Several lifetimes of experiences and memories weighed me down.

They came to me as businessmen in suits, but I knew immediately they were more than that. When they took me in, they revealed they were immortals also. They had existed for almost as long as time, or so they claimed.

They offered me a deal. Do one thing for them, and eternal wealth and happiness would be mine. I was a fool to believe them, but I had no other choice as far as I could see. All I had to do was kill a man, and return a crystal to them.

Before I made the vow, I had to promise my soul to them. Until I returned the crystal, I would be bound to them. Once they found me, they could take away all that I loved, and all that I have ever loved before. They would burn my entire history if I went back on my word. I believed they could do everything they said.

Kill a man. Give them a crystal. It seemed simple.

I could never imagine that this man would become a father figure to me; a mentor I would love and respect above all others. While I tried to go back on the deal, once I had inserted myself into Yen’s life and seen what a great man he was, I found that there was no going back. Those men would take Alryan away from me, and take all that I have ever known and cared for. I had to do what I did. I was just glad that she didn’t know that dark figure was me.

Well, she didn’t know until many years later. But even our love couldn’t stop us from becoming enemies.

This was all so long ago, however. As I stood there now, on that cliff top, I had a choice to make. It seemed simpler now that I’d had time to reflect.

True happiness came from being with loved ones. To truly love and be loved. That meant sharing your life with someone. Someone who you can trust without question.

I removed the stopper from the vial and swallowed the blue liquid. The remainder of the crystal I kept with me, just in case I’d need later.

My body warmed and tingled almost immediately. The synthesised God Killer worked its way through me, turning me into a mortal. I was overwhelmingly tired, as if a great weight had come over me, and at the same time I felt lighter. Cleaner.

I looked over the snowy mountain town, knowing that somewhere out there was the monastery I once trained in. I had come to this cliff edge with Alryan many times, and had even brought Melina here a couple of times.

I studied the darkness below me. That was the last time I would look into that darkness, I told myself.

I turned from the cliff edge and began the rest of my life. Perhaps to love again.

***

“Whoa, that’s some story,” said the young girl who had requested a story.

“It’s nice alright,” said a man around the campfire. “But I call bullshit. Ain’t no one like this Mr. Big Stuff ever been around.”

The old man smiled, though his eyes were sorrowful.

“Hold on,” said the large man with the goatee. “Just how do you know all that?”

A gasp came from the group. They all stared in awe at the old man.

“You’re him,” the young girl said quietly.

The old man just smiled.

Harry’s Last Trick

Harry’s Last Trick PDF icon

1.

 

The most innocuous way to begin this story is to tell you that I hit a dog.  This happens to hundreds of people every day with not much recourse.  Yet, I had somehow avoided this sad fate for forty-three years.  The requisite guilt was intensified by all of my years as a non-dog killer.  The morally upright person that walks around during the day doesn’t hit animals.  The only marginally aware, emotionally consumed, and half blind idiot apparently does.  I don’t know if this story has any clear “moral,” but that might be a good one.

 

2.

 

I started this story off in a manner that I referred to as “innocuous.”  Now I would like to fill in that skeletal portrait with a few (possibly) hard to believe details.  I will begin by describing the car that I was driving on the particular night of the accident.  This would be a standard issue 1975 Volkswagen Beetle.  (These, obviously, are better known in popular language as “Bugs.”  The cars that were shamefully clunky and unloved until Walt Disney gave one of them a human consciousness and mediocre cast mates).  My “bug” was originally the conventional color of yellow.

Many years ago, I had repainted the hood and body to look like a person wearing a tuxedo.  The hood was the bowtie, shirt, and jacket while the rest of it was the body of the suit wearer.  A black “top hat” I had fashioned out of Plaster of Paris completed the “suit”; this was secured to the roof of the vehicle.  I had wanted to finish this transformation by attaching a mannequin arm holding a magic wand to the passenger door.  This had been done, and resulted in a rather costly ticket because the city court was convinced it was a “hazard.”  (I even spent an hour arguing with a judge about that arm.  My defense entailed me stating that it “brought joy” to the thousands of city dwellers I passed ever day.  This was clearly not successful, and the arm came off the next day.  I would add that my suggestion to perform a few card tricks in the court room was also very poorly received.)

The arm with the magic wand should be a tip off to my profession.  For the last twenty years, I have been a professional magician.  The kind you see struggling to entertain children at various birthday parties, or laboring at “gigs” in the back of bookstores and libraries.  If I am unduly lucky, I might get a slot at the depilated theater that holds events for “charity.”  (I have never figured out who is benefiting from these said “events.”  I just know that I can go home with a cut from the store.  I can lay in bed and stare at the door money stuffed in my hot little hand and ruminate about having finally “made it.”)

The car had lived for much longer than I ever thought it would.  Unfortunately, it was currently serving as my home when I ran mercilessly into my four-legged friend.  The evening before I had returned to the place where I was staying and found the lock had been changed.  I had been bunking in a friend’s magic shop (sleeping on a couch in the storage room).  I have come to believe that this unhappy outcome was far beyond my control.  I looked in the window after struggling with the door with several minutes.  Everything was gone and the room was covered in a sickly white color from a nearby streetlamp.

You now have a solid picture of what the car looked like.  Now I need to tell you about the beast itself.  The mongrel in question was well over a hundred pounds.  The pitch-black night obscured many other details (the most obvious one being the actual breed).  The one detail that can’t be overlooked; the dog completely demolished the front of my car.  There was an inescapable dent and a very large plume of smoke that followed the metallic crunch.

The damage is not the remarkable thing about this story.  The fact that the dog looked directly in my eyes and then walked off very much alive is.  I didn’t see where he went, but I got out of my totaled magic mobile with a purpose.  I was off to find what was left of the dog.

 

3.

 

Here are a few details to consider as “setting the scene.”  This was one of the coldest nights documented in a very long time.  I got out of my car and realized that I was in a part of the city that I didn’t even recognize.  Typical “urban” elements like telephone polls and brick buildings were contrasted by dirt alleys and unpopulated roads that led out of town.  I was to discover that very few of the citizens of this area believed in leaving their lights on.  (My imagination conjured up every explanation from devil worship to shameful nudity to explain why all the windows were dark).  I was dressed in my “uniform” for shows.  I had invested in a highly tailored suit that I had horizontally outgrown (my gut burst over the pant line).  A back length red cape made out of velvet that collected asphalt as I walked had always complimented the suit.  The red from the cape was most likely the only detail that the occasional driver could see with their headlights.

I always have painfully clear insights after a car accident.   They don’t always have a logical succession, but they do have a sick sort of staying power.  The first major one; my “career” in magic was probably over.  My trademark (the bug) was permanently damaged and my income was not going to provide for a replacement.  The very thing that got from one gig to another had committed suicide by dog.  I might be able to salvage the material from the back of the car (old props, costumes, and the same “how to” books I had studied since childhood).  All of that stuff was now horribly dated.  When I was still living in the magic shop, I had caught a ritzy cable special of a much younger and hipper magician.  The idiot had toys I couldn’t even imagine, not to mention a fully articulated light show behind him at all times.  This was the sort of example I had been seeing lately of talent being only “optional.”  The crowd was sedated by memorization and distracted by charm and showmanship.  I just had the same old jokes followed by the plethora of tricks for eons now.

That is what led to another realization; there was nothing extraordinary about me.  Magicians all over the country were doing various versions of my act right now.  They were far from plagiarists, because every good magic show should have an element of the familiar.  I just began to wonder if I had ever done anything completely unique.  I wasn’t just talking about my show…I was turning over every unexamined aspect of my meek little existence.

My eyes kept scanning for the dog as I walked into the darkness.  As I continued walking, the question: “Why?” popped into my head.  I thought I could ignore it and move on.  To make matters worse, I started imagining the word: “Why?” appearing like a neon sign in front of me.  The sign in my head would point to a formerly unspecified destination that would contain all the mythical answers I could possibly desire.  What was the “why” really asking?

I didn’t even have to ask because I inherently knew.  “Why magic?”  I was about to discover when I turned another corner that I had become lost on a back road.  Nothing looked even remotely familiar to me at this point.  I started to turn around and walk back in the direction I came from.  I found myself thinking: “Fine.  I clearly have a walk in front of me.  Why magic?”

 

4.

 

My very first memory has to do with a soup can that was on my mother’s kitchen counter.  I was all of about two and a half years old; I can remember thinking that if I concentrated hard enough the can would move.  The next image that comes into my mind is of the can being in a completely different spot.  This wasn’t like watching a ghost drag a inanimate object across the counter.  The can had very much been transported by what I saw as my own willpower.  I know that any rational person can shoot this full of holes and I don’t need a believer.  This was simply my own experience of what I thought I saw.   This led to other incidents; causing the TV to turn off and on, causing the school bus tire to blow out, and even willing a black out during one of my bored school days.

I might not have thought I was directly responsible for any of it, but I couldn’t help but forge a connection in my mind.  I was dreadfully bored during that school black out and just as my frustration reached its zenith: “Pop!”  The bus incident was also similar; this was after I had grown to hate going to school.  My younger psyche had been filled with various escape plans and a nagging, eventually all-consuming dread.  What could be done to ensure that the bus didn’t arrive at school when we hit the end of the line?  After all of the grotesque children had been collected, and the bus door shut for the final time…there had to be an escape.  The moment I brought that thought into my consciousness the tire exploded and the bus was barely maneuvered to the side of the road.

What about the TV switching off?  That mostly had to do with a leak my family had in the roof.   I walked by one night feeling flushed with power and a giant torrent of rain came storming through the leak.  The TV had been displaying a particular program I didn’t approve of and I took this as more circumstantial evidence.

These brief examples are all just previews for the main attraction.  I have large chunks in my memory leading up to making this decision.  However, when I was sixteen, I decided that I desperately wanted to end my own life.  There was a crumby bridge by my house that overlooked a marginally crowded intersection.  I had written some self-indulgent poetry (in lieu of a suicide note) and stuffed it in a pocket.  I figured that whoever found my mangled corpse might be able to read whatever was left decipherable.  (There clearly wasn’t strong logic operating inside me at this time).  That particular night I arrived at the bridge around one a.m. and teetered on the edge.  I read my bad poetry to the world and then got up the gumption to make the descent.

The miracle happened when I decided half way through the jump that I wanted to live.  This is what I swear to you happened; a breeze came and redirected my ninety pound frame into a row of bushes.  Don’t get me wrong; I still attained several serious injuries (broken bones and a long gash across my forehead).  That wasn’t the point to me.  I had once again willed myself to circumvent fate and ended up alive.   That meant that I had some particular destiny here on the planet.  I was supposed to do a ‘GREAT THING” that I perhaps had yet to discover.  (The phrase “GREAT THING” might as well be another one of my directionless, neon flashing signs.)

Then, after the bridge incident, I had to go away for a while…

 

5.

 

I was jolted out of my pleasant recollections by my first sighting of what I would refer to as: “The Mongrel.”  I suddenly spotted the dog hobbling towards a giant empty space in front of me.  The space was populated by what looked like dark and misshapen structures.  (I had a distant memory of a TV program I had seen once about elephant graveyards.)  I stuck my hand up (almost as if I assumed the animal could see me) and started to run after it.  As I approached the empty space, my eyes spontaneously adapted to the darkness surrounding me.  I realized I was in the middle of a large dirt lot.  The “dead elephants” turned out to be circus tents.  I was in the middle of a traveling show that had obviously closed up for the night.

The Mongrel was nowhere to be found as I walked around the perimeter.  I saw a couple of the carnies wandering around the corner and decided it was best to hide.  I didn’t want to go into a long explanation of what I was doing or why.  I found a particular (and perfectly sized) spot to hide at the exit of one of the tents.  That is when I noticed a smaller tent directly in front of me.  The word MAGIC was displayed proudly on the roof and the tent was illustrated with pictures.  There were magic wands, cards, dices, and a rather pitiful looking rabbit popping out of a hat.

I couldn’t believe it; my “GREAT THING” was staring me right in the face.  I knew the tent probably housed another performer.  (One I assumed was infinitely more talented than I was).  That didn’t prevent me from walking into the unprotected entrance.  I found myself in a relatively cozy environment with only about thirty seats and a small stage.  The stage displayed a coffin and a saw (without the lovely assistant).  There was an oversized deck of cards on top of an ancient picnic table.  There was also a velvet backdrop that hardly covered the canvas wall.  I was home, and I decided to perform a few tricks.

I leapt up onto the stage and bellowed: “For my first trick…”

 

6.

 

“For my first trick…”

That was a very old line in my life from when I first started doing tricks.  That was after I went away for a while to The Place Which Shan’t Be Named.  I found myself surrounded by human beings in various stages of emotional turmoil.  We were all constantly on watch by a man I liked to call “The Specialist.”  The Specialist was a dry humored, bald, and overly diplomatic man that we all had to spend at least an hour a week with.  The other half of the time was spent with the Specialist and the rest of us seated in an awkward badly formed semi-circle staring at each other.  I was never quite sure of how any of this was supposed to translate into anything productive.  I wonder if we all were led to believe that a cure would present itself at just the right time.  The good news was that we had the evening (mostly) free and there was a wide selection of books.

I was having one of my bouts of sleeplessness when I decided to go wandering the halls.  There were various bookshelves tucked away and completely ignored in just about every corner.  The books and shelves collected more and more dust as they were spread further out.  I eventually got all the way to the end of one of the hallways and found a case with a single book.   By this point, I was in almost complete darkness with nothing but a bit of moonlight shining through the venetian blinds.  I attribute that fact to my motivation for picking up this oddly orphaned volume.  In any other circumstance, I would have turned a blind eye and kept on walking.

The moonlight fell on what I perceived to be a diagram that held little appeal.  That was before a bit more study illuminated the fact that it was instructions for a card trick.  That was enough for me to tuck the book under my arm and walk away with it.  I was fortunate enough to have a room to myself.  (That had to do with my last roommate having an unfortunate encounter with the ceiling and his shoelaces.)   I could flip on the light at random and read for many hours on end.  I found entire nights vanishing under the influence of obscure “magical spells” and slights of hand.  This allowed me to sleepwalk through just about everything else.

The final culmination in becoming a magician was to give my first real show.  I was pleasantly surprised that the Specialist was all for this “opportunity.”  He even donated me an hour or so on the cafeteria stage after our “medicine” break.  I found myself performing magic tricks in front of a bunch of zonked out patients.  There were two sizable takeaways from this particular experience.  The completely unreceptive members of the audience were hazing me for the future.  I also did a full out stumble when I first took the stage that brought down the house.  This was the unintentional creation of a personae; the bumbling idiot that was at least marginally competent.  I would go about pretending that I didn’t know what I was doing.  That would make the pay off of each magic trick a surprise.  All of these events seemed accidental until I thought about it later.

My mysterious streak of self-appointed “luck” was continuing.  I was “approved” to leave The Place Which Shan’t Be Named.  I was never to lay eyes on the Specialist again.  He might not have been visibly present, but he was forever in my thoughts in a nightmarish way.   The voice of unintentional deterrent is a pleasant way to refer to him.  I always have his voice in the back of my head saying: “Is that really such a great idea?”

 

7.

 

The small stage I stood on was now consumed with a wash of magic supplies.  I had found a stack of boxes stuffed in a corner.  Each one of them had been badly taped together and was clearly overflowing with the tricks of the trade.  I had started to perform almost on autopilot.  I was only dimly aware of stage lights slowly rising on me as I did my usual “competent idiot” act.  I didn’t even notice a dark figure seated at the end of one of the aisles.  That might have continued if I hadn’t heard oddly incongruous applause after one more card trick.  I looked out into the darkness.

That is when I saw a familiar face; the Specialist was watching me intently.  I couldn’t mistake the face or the antique pair of spectacles.  The only thing that had changed was that he was wearing a clown suit.  There was even remnants of white make-up around his eyes (he didn’t finish cleaning himself up).  I looked directly at him and he exaggeratedly clapped again.  I was so dumbfounded that I had to wait for him to speak.

“You’ve gotten better,” the Specialist said.

“Was I bad before?” I said as I walked towards the edge of the stage.

“You were…unformed,” the Specialist told me.

He got up and walked towards the edge of the stage and I helped him up.

“Why the clown suit?” I asked.

“Sort of a childhood ambition,” he said.

I had never noticed a beach ball that was rolling around on stage.  (I fully acknowledge the fact that it might have always been there I just hadn’t noticed it.  That is a completely unimportant detail to me).  We started to pass the ball back and forth in a standard game of catch.   That was until the game mutated and the Specialist must have grown a new set of limbs.  The man was infinitely more agile than I ever could have imagined.  He would dart from one point to another and I could never quite locate him.  I would toss the ball into the darkness and watch the clown suit materialize out of nowhere.   The ball would plummet back into my arms and simultaneously release itself.  I found that I could dash away just in time to catch the ball at another location.

The ball finally landed and my feet and I didn’t have the inclination to toss it again.  The Specialist appeared out of the darkness and started to cradle the ball like a baby.

“When did you ever want to be a clown?” I asked, out of breath.

“More of a direct route to happiness,” the Clown informed me.

“How so?” I found myself sitting down.

The Specialist sat down next to me, still holding the ball for dear life.

“What I did,” he started to explain, “There’s theories and techniques.  There’s charts to follow.  But clowns make people laugh.”

The Specialist smiled, which was also something I didn’t know he could do.  He eased the ball into my lap and pushed it down with his hand.

“I thought of a final trick for our act,” the Specialist said.

“What act?”

“The one we were doing just now.”

I wanted to push the ball away from, but found the same kind of paralysis.

“Okay,” I said, “What is the grand finale?”

The Specialist looked me dead in the eye: “I want you to make this ball disappear.”

I placed my hand on the ball and concentrated.  Wasn’t the ball just like my childhood soup can?  I closed my eyes for a fleeting moment and felt the strangeness of the rubber.  The ball wouldn’t recognize my willpower.  I didn’t feel the cold air that my imagination desired.  The emptiness that would signify that I was just as powerful as I had always assumed.  When I opened my eyes, I found the dead looking beach ball staring back at me.  The Specialist, however, was completely gone from the stage.

 

8.

 

I had vague ambitions when I got out of The Place Which Shan’t Be Named.  The title “magician” was wonderfully evocative but aimless.  This trade, if you can call it that, doesn’t have a clear path.  There aren’t clubs that people join or signs that sprout up on the side of the road that say: “Magicians Welcome.”  I didn’t go to school; I just read many books and slept out in parks at night.  That same crazy faith was with me at all times.   The faith was made worse by the various wild and almost tangible daydreams.  In my head, I had reached the absolute zenith of success.

Here is a sketch of that particular doubled headed monster.  I had somehow found an abandoned house in my wanderings.  The door was open when I found it and everything was relatively clean.  This, in my crazed state, was now a wonderful place to “rehearse.”  This was directly after I had decided on my new nome de plume: “Harry the Magnificent.”  Have you ever created an alter ego?  They give you a wonderful excuse to blame everything on a ghost.  The skeletal, hungry version of me could say that “Harry” stole the candy bar out of the convenience store.  “Harry” could have a total disregard for sleep when I spent all night pouring over magic books.

“Harry” was the person who transformed this house.  “Harry” found various bright colors of paint in the garage and mercilessly splashed them on the white walls.  “Harry” decided that he needed a bonfire in the living room to stay warm.  “Harry” painted crude pictures on the walls of what should have been the children’s rooms.  Little by little, I imagined that the entire home was my stage.  The original home started to fade away as “Harry” entertained his millions of adoring fans.

I would also tell you that “Harry” was the person who chased off the people who showed up to reclaim the house.  I believe that “Harry” rushed at them and yelled at the top of his lungs: “Now I will make you all vanish.”

 

9.

 

“Harry” was with me tonight.  “Harry” was the one who started to decorate the stage.  He pushed the coffin and saw in the center of the stage.  He was the one who made a vain attempt to clean the debris off his stage with his foot.  “Harry” was setting the stage for a certain person to show up.  I had rather ambivalent feelings about her, but “Harry” needed her to come.  The question was how long both of us were willing to wait.

 

10.

 

I found myself wandering again after having to leave my house/auditorium.  “Harry” would appear to me from time to time as the laziest travel guide who ever lived.  He would be my guiding instinct when it was time to eat, sleep, or move on.  I only have dim memories; there is a traveling circus, a few children’s birthday parties, and a disastrous appearance in the back of a bookstore.  The wisest thing would have been to stay in one area and try to truly establish myself as a “name.”  This just didn’t suit my dual personality.  The best way to deceive myself (and “Harry”) of my mysteriousness was to show up as a foreign object in each new environment.  I would perform (many times illegally) on various street corners.  There was even a few times when my fear of the law got so great that I gave “late night shows.”  The various non-human and human vermin would gather around me as I used streetlights as stage lighting.  On some nights, there might only be five or six audience members.  That mattered very little to “Harry” or myself because the applause always sounded deafening to both of us.

This was around the same time that I discovered that joy was an oddly tradable currency.  People would take me in with no questions asked.  There would be the opportunity to shower and stay two or three nights.  My trademark suit appeared because I met a tailor with a few extra pieces of clothing.  (The cape was his idea and it fit me just right with the exception of a few inches that trailed behind me.  He even offered to correct it but I absolutely refused.  This was, in my mind, part of the “Harry” gag.  How does this idiot even walk around without tripping on his cape?)

My sense of time completely eroded while I was traveling.  I can’t tell you precisely how long I was out roving.  There was only the exact moment when it stopped cold.  I had found some other anonymous city to wander through.  I was right in the middle of scouting my spot for tonight’s late night show.  I was crossing a bridge when I saw a pale skinned, black haired girl standing a tad too close to the ledge.   She was wearing what looked to be a ball gown.  This was not the most important detail; she had an elaborate pair of angel wings strapped to her back.  The logical part of my mind knew this was just a costume.  “Harry” was the one who saw her, as she would like to be seen.  The fact that it looked like she was about to jump off the bridge had not escaped either one of us.

 

11.

 

The inside of the tent felt like it had expanded.  There were new rows of chairs that I hadn’t noticed before.  The stage grew in size; the interior of the tent (which had originally felt cramped) was now oddly cacophonous.  The canvas on the back wall was slipping down and starting to reveal some kind of poster.  I walked away from the coffin and saw towards whatever the piece of the art was.  I was about to find a piece of artwork that I had fashioned years before.  The woman I just told you about stood on the bridge with her wings.  She faced the onlooker with a radiant, death-defying smile.  I had illustrated her standing under a streetlamp just in the way I used to.  The younger version of me stood next to the woman.  That’s when I was reminded of the unfortunate truth that I was once considered handsome.  The obscene handsomeness canceled out the over all ludicrousness of the magician’s costume.

Bold lettering at the bottom of the picture read: “Amelia Flies!”  I checked to see if I could find a date for this performance.  (The date of the original performance had long escaped from my memory).  I finally found the date hidden at the very bottom of the picture.  That is when I found tonight’s date staring at me in the face.  There was no other way than to see that as the final sign; Amelia was going to be here soon.  I had started to feel my anticipatory nervousness when the picture shifted.  The reflection surface of a mirror replaced the two figures and the magic proposition of flight.

I can’t remember when I had made the habit of intentionally not looking at myself.  Perhaps I had begun to assume that a youthful profession would keep me from the ravages of age.  That was not going to be the case; I could only see remnants of my formerly handsome visage.  Everything had unfortunately dropped or receded to an uncorrectable degree.  My suit was severely distorted by weight gained over the long course of a life filled with health related neglect.  The most disturbing thing to look for me was my own set of eyes.  They have oddly changed to a darker, battle weary color of green.  I looked like a person who physically couldn’t stand waiting for another second.

How much longer would I have to wait?

 

12.

 

As you have no doubt gathered, Amelia was the woman on the bridge.  The heroic piece of me felt the need to somehow intervene.  I approached her and magically made a bouquet of flowers appear in my hand.  I handed it to her and she accepted without giving me eye contact.

The very first thing Amelia ever said to me was this indicative statement:

“My dear, I’m not sure your magical flowers will ever quite be enough.”

“What would, then?” I asked.

Amelia turned her face to me and said: “Make me fly.”

Amelia was a classically beautiful woman with one minor exception.  She had a long scar that ran from the top of forehead to the bottom of her nose.  As I was going to find out, her explanation would change constantly for why she had this.

“How am I supposed to do that?” I asked.

“With your magical powers,” she retorted, “You do have powers, don’t you?”

“I would like to believe so,” I said.

“Use them now!” she exclaimed.

That is when Amelia hoisted herself off the bridge into the shallow body of water below.  There was at least a brief moment I could have sworn that her wings organically flapped.  I did everything I could to concentrate (much in the same way that I had on the soup can from my youth).  I can’t really attest to how much help I was.  The worries over my true abilities were canceled out as I rushed down to help the woman I had just met.  I even went as far as to jump into the water without any concern for my suit or cape.  Amelia surfaced from the water with any superficial injuries and an eerie smile.  This was a regular practice for her (as I was about to find out).

I dragged Amelia out and set her on the ground.

“Magic doesn’t exist!” she proclaimed, before passing out cold.

That one line might have been enough to cement our history together.  Disproving it became more than a hobby; it slid into the world of a deeply sick obsession.

 

13.

 

I realized the surface of the mirror at the back of the tent had faded.  I was watching my first encounter with Amelia in front of me like some dreadful movie.  I’m still not sure where the mirror shifted back and I could see the inside of the tent.  The night was still very much in tact outside.  The arena was cast in dull shadows that just seemed senseless to me at this point.  That is when I saw the mongrel I had hit wander into the space and to the edge of the stage.  I bolted around to confront it and just saw a sad dog smile.  The animal was still mobile and almost didn’t look damaged.  The only hint of the accident came in the form of blood dripping out of the mouth.  I wanted to utter an apology and found myself unable to do it.

Then the dog was gone from the space.  I walked slowly around the room looking for any sign of it.  I walked back up on the stage and found the mirror flickering again.

 

14.

 

Amelia and I had found each other during another one of my bouts of homelessness.  She offered to let me sleep on a dilapidated couch in her living room for an indefinite amount of time.  I assumed that she wanted intimacy; instead, I was going to be subjected to months of not being touched by her.  The constant denial of any kind of physical bond just made me more desirous of her.  Whenever I made overtures, she would push me away and say: “No, I care about you too much.”

Over the next few months I was going to discover that Amelia had “gentleman callers.”  They would show up at her home; each one looking more hopeless than the last.  They were the absolute dregs of society; men with unsightly skin conditions, amputees, and those with an almost unfathomable sadness. She would pull them into her tiny closet-sized bedroom.  If I didn’t want to hear the sounds of their encounters, I would have to retreat to the hole in the wall diner below her apartment.  There was a pretty waitress there who would take pity on me and give me free coffee.  I would let it seep into my very being as I seethed about what I was denied.  The fact that the waitress was paying me attention was completely lost on me at the time.  (Sometimes when I can’t get to sleep, I find myself thinking about the waitress and what become of her.  I have invented numerous scenarios in which she has nothing but infinite security and happiness.  The thought that someone is at peace helps me rest a bit).

What kept me there?  That would be the nonsense of what was to be deemed our “project.”   Perhaps I should explain how Amelia’s mind worked.  She was haunted by a singular childhood dream about flying over a range of mountains.  This was done completely without any kind of assistance (the way many of us fly in our dreams).  She had a similar GREAT THING in mind to me.  This led to a childhood full of near accidents; higher and higher surfaces from which to plummet off of.  Somewhere in her lost years she started wearing the angels’ wings as a trademark.  The fundamental difference between Amelia and myself was relatively simple.  She had stopped believing, and I didn’t understand how that could happen.

On the second night at her place, I found myself vowing to give her a functional set of wings.  That led to months of scouring libraries for every kind of book on aviation.  I discovered that I was capable of doing very complex mathematical problems.  I even was to discover that I had somewhat of a gift for elaborate construction.  I had to find a way to conceal all of the mechanical inner workings of the wings in the right amount of feathers.  The wings, in turn, had to look naturally attached to Amelia’s tiny body.  The last pair I was ever to produce was almost credible as a real set of angelic limbs.

I was to discover that this was mostly “baptism by fire” work.  Each new pair of wings had to be subjected to a number of rigorous tests.  Amelia would hurl herself from a high surface with frantically flapping arms.  I would use this an excuse to “catch” her.  By the time we developed the last set of wings, a strange and miraculous thing occurred.  Amelia stopped flapping and flew for a magnificent thirty seconds.  She glided to a safe landing on a nearby piece of dirt.  I had closed my eyes and concentrated as hard as I possibly could; this time I let my desperation bleed out into the atmosphere.  When Amelia and I looked at each other, there was a silent understanding that magic had been achieved.

The next few weeks were spent plastering the town with our “Amelia Flies” posters.  This mystical event was going to take place on the same bridge where I met Amelia for the first time.  I have forgotten most of the details of the actual day.  I wish I could tell you how many people showed up.  I even wish I could repeat word for word my introduction.  My distorted memory would have me believe that it was one of the great oratory performances of all time.  Truth be told, I can’t even the sensation of giving it.  The words left my mouth and then Amelia took her position on the ledge.

The next few minutes always expand in my mind to be longer than they were.  Amelia flapped her wings, glided, and then crashed into the ground next to the water.  I heard gasps from the audience as she became motionless.  Her eyes closed, and I found my first impulse was to run.  That’s right; I didn’t stick around to see what happened or how I could help.  No one chased after me because there was a dying woman on the ground.  The armchair psychologist could tell you that I didn’t want my naïveté shattered.  My steadfast dedication to belief in magic would have taken a severe blow.  Was that really it?  The fundamental truth is that I have no earthly clue why I bolted.

 

15.

 

I stopped looking in the mirror after the last image of Amelia on the ground faded.  The theater remained empty, and the stage remained silent.  I could feel the sensation of disappointment as a knot in my stomach.  I started to head towards the exit.  That is when the tent was swamped with light.  The seats were instantaneously filled with a crowd of well-dressed spectators.  The sounds of wild applause deafened me.  Through no action of my own, I found myself back on stage with a confidence I hadn’t known before.  The marginally competent “Harry” was nowhere in my body.

My voice boomed as I said: “We’ve all had impossible dreams!  Dreams that haunt us with their impossibility.  What would you do if nothing stopped you?  Maybe you would fly!”  As the last line bellowed from me, I saw an elderly woman with a pair of wings begin to flutter down from the ceiling.  I would have recognized her anywhere at any age.  This was Amelia; but her black hair had turned grey and her distinctive scar had gotten longer.  Amelia’s style of dress had gone from revealing dresses to what respectively looked like a hospital gown.  The crowd loudly voiced its approval as Amelia whirled around the top of the tent.  There were moments when she would just vanish into darkness only to emerge triumphantly in light.  The vanishing act was supplemented with elaborate summersaults and mind numbingly excellent flips.  The final trick consisted of Amelia coming to a dead stand still in mid-air.  I could physically feel the audience holds its breath until she descended down to the stage.  She bowed to wild applause that I thought would never end.

The entire time I watched Amelia’s flying out with a professional distance.  Her wings were even more realistic than anything I could fashion.  They moved with organic grace and precise birdlike timing that I couldn’t help but marvel at.  I even found myself wanting wholeheartedly to believe they were real.  They even folded up as Amelia went into a second bow for her delighted audience.

The lights shut off we were covered in complete blackness.

 

16.

 

I found Amelia and I engulfed in a floodlight that made very little else visible.  I realized in the moment that a person’s smile never changes.  Amelia’s was just as paradoxically distant and warm as it had always been.  I felt my smile plaster onto my face as tears welled up in my eyes.  She stole the exact thought from my mind as she began to speak.

“I was finally able to fly,” she said.

“You fly beautifully,” I answered, “No thanks to me.”

“That’s unimportant now,” she said, reaching for my arm.

We walked together in the darkness for a while.

“Was it everything you expected to be?” I finally asked.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say so,” she stopped walking.

“Why?”

“The most satisfying feeling came after I landed for the first time.  The knowledge that I could finally look back and know that some kind of miracle was achieved.  You can’t spot a miracle when you are right in the middle of it.”

“I’ve been trying to my entire life.”

She laughed gently and touched my face.

“Have you still not done it yet?” she said, laughing.

“I keep thinking that I’ll be able to spot it.  Be able to look around at the world transforming around me while smiling.  I’ve spent so much time imagining it…shouldn’t I just be able to freeze time and know it when it comes?”

“No,” she said, “you should feel it in your gut.  Here…”

She grabbed my hand and set it on the wings.  This was just as I imagined it to be.  There was no separation from her flesh; the wings moved underneath my nervous fingers.  That was when she started to vanish from my sight.

“Wait,” I said, “how is this possible?”

“I stopped wishing,” she called back, “and then it happened.”

After that, Amelia was completely gone.  I could just hear her laughing from somewhere in the pitch black.  I suddenly realized how long it had been since I heard her distinct brand of chuckle.  The one that accompanied every single part of our flying “work.”  She would laugh at every single fitting of a new pair of wings.  She would even chortle after thousands of rough landings.  There was nothing that would ever stop her from a certain pleasing ironic distance.  Was that why I did it all?  Just to hear a beautiful woman laugh?  The women that I just let vanish again from my sight.

The Specialist appeared out of the darkness dressed in his clown suit.

“Should I have just been a comedian?” I asked.

The Specialist just raised his eyebrow and snapped his fingers.

 

17.

 

I was back on stage again with the Specialist with the house lights up.  I could see every one of the joy filled faces as they applauded.  The Specialist stood at a microphone stand off to my left and gestured at me wildly.

“Please applaud Harry,” he proclaimed, “Please applaud Harry the Magnificent in his final performance.”

Two words were clearly etched in my memory; and they were final performance I wanted to ask The Specialist: “Is this really it?”  I knew from personal experience that I wouldn’t get anything back but a non-answer.  I turned to another direction, and that is when I saw the dog again.  The dog was laid on its side and breathed in a terminal sounding shallow manner.  I turned around to see the Specialist nod at me to approach the dog.  I turned my back towards the Specialist as I heard his authoritative voice boom through the microphone.

“For his last trick ever,” the Specialist said, “Harry will save the life of a dying dog.”

I found myself crouching down by the dog and putting my hand on its midsection.  Hadn’t my entire life trained me to do the impossible?  The journey that began with an innocuous can of soup was about to end.  The crowd was relying on me to save this animal that my Beetle had such an unfortunate run-in with.  I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the animal well.  I attempted to imagine its entire life as the most blessed existence a dog could ever have.  I extrapolated that this was a life the dog wanted to return to desperately.  The only way to do that was to rediscover his vitality that was right at my fingertips.

Nothing happened.

I opened my eyes to discover that the dog was even more distant.  The dog’s eyes were now closed and the body was even stiffer.  My magical touch was not being summoned; I suppose that would lead more logical people to realize that it was never real.  I was so much concerned with the discovery of my own delusions at the moment.  If I couldn’t save the dog, what could I do in this moment?  I took off my cape and covered the dog.   I gave it one final pat on the head and then stood up to face the crowd.

“I couldn’t save it,” I cried out, “But I could make it disappear.”

I heard the crowd laugh approvingly and then begin a loud applause.  The Specialist walked up behind me and put his hand on my shoulder.

“That was exactly the right answer,” the Specialist told me.

The crowd rose to its feet and I waved one last time and began to exit the stage.  The lights snapped off again and I found myself in an empty tent.  The space was back to its tragically original size.  I could detect a few early morning sunrays streaming through the cracks in the canvas.  My cape was still on exact same spot that I had left it when I covered the dog. At any other time in my life, I would have hurried to pick it back up and reattach the thing to my suit.  I knew that I wouldn’t do that again as I continued to study it.  That is when I realized that I wasn’t alone.

A burly, tattooed carny was staring straight at me with a combination of confusion and menace.

“Old timer,” he said, “I’m afraid I am going to ask you to leave.”

“Just one moment longer?” I asked.

The carny shook his head and pointed to an exit.  The frown was the most prominent thing I noticed as I took off my top hat.

“Maybe what you need most,” I said, “is a top hat.”

I jumped off the stage and placed on the hat on his head before he could protest.  Then I rushed out the exit into the burgeoning sunrise.