The Mechanics of Science, Popularly Illustrated

by Marty Schnapp

 

“I don’t know, Timmy,” Tommy said. “You know Dad doesn’t like us messing around with his stuff.”

Timmy Wilson gave his brother an exasperated look. People sometimes said that twins shared a brain, but Timmy often thought he had the whole thing and Tommy only had visiting rights.

“Look, genius,” he said. “We’re not messing around with anything, we’re just borrowing some oil. Dad said he wanted us to take care of our new bikes, didn’t he? Anyway, he’s at work and Mom’s out shopping, so who’s gonna know?”

They kept rummaging around the workshop and finally spotted the oilcan on the top shelf of a metal cabinet.

“I can’t reach it,” Timmy said. “I need something to stand on.”

“How about this?” Tommy pointed to a large wooden tool chest on the bottom shelf. They slid it out, and a pile of magazines stacked behind it spilled out on the floor.

“Hey, what’s this?” Tommy picked up the top one.

The Mechanics of Science, Popularly Illustrated was emblazoned on the cover, along with the title of the featured article, “Build a Cold Fusion Reactor with Items Found in Your Kitchen!” The cover illustration showed a typical family of four wearing thick goggles and radiation suits, gathered around a kitchen table. On the table was a Rubberware bowl with heavy electrical cables attached to large terminals on its lid. The bowl had a peculiar greenish glow. Nearby, the family cat, unprotected, had a similar glow.

“Wow, check that out!”

“That’s cool,” said Timmy, “but look at this one!”

The next magazine proclaimed, “Better Living Through Genetic Mutation.” Here a husband and wife relaxed around a pool while being served drinks by a simian creature in butler’s livery. Above them, a young boy caught an impossible high-fly courtesy of a pair of leathery wings sprouting from his shoulder blades.

“Neat,” Tommy said, “but this one’s even better.”

“Time Travel: New Breakthroughs Make It Feasible.” The cover reproduced John Trumbull’s painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, except that amid the Founding Fathers was a man in a plaid suit wearing horn-rimmed glasses, signing with a ballpoint pen.

“No, no! This one!” Timmy exclaimed, “We gotta do this one.”

“Teleportation! Beat the High Cost of Commuting!” A man in a business suit, just donning his hat, was kissing his wife good-bye as he stepped out the door. The clock behind him read eight fifty-nine. His foot, however, was stepping directly into his office where the time clock read nine o’clock sharp.

“Yeah!” Tommy said. “We could quit taking the stupid school bus.”

“Who cares about the bus? We could watch all of Captain Incendio and the Pyronauts after school and still be on time for ball practice.”

But a quick look at the article dashed their hopes.

“We have to either have a large supply of liquid nitrogen, or convert the refrigerator to a cryogenics plant,” Timmy said. “Either way, we wouldn’t be done by the time Mom gets home. And you know what she’d say about the refrigerator.”

“Well, how about this?” Tommy asked.

“Build an Inter-Dimensional Portal.” Below, it added, “Open a Million Doorways to the Unknown.” The cover of this magazine was different from the others. It was completely black, with the silhouette of a man standing in the bright light of an open doorway. He was surrounded by dozens of question marks. There was something intriguing, perhaps even a little creepy about it; they agreed on the project at once. They decided to use the doorway between the kitchen and dining room as the portal, and set to work.

It was careful, exacting work, and it took nearly an hour. They drove nails at specific points around the doorframe. They couldn’t find any rubber grommets in the garage, so they drove the nails through Oatsy-Os cereal, which would act as insulators. Then they strung fine copper wire around the insulated nails, following a pattern in the magazine. The wires went back and forth across the doorway, passing over and under each other very closely, but without touching. Finally, they connected the ends of the wires to their National Flyer train transformer. Then they stood back to appraise their work.

“It looks just like the picture in the magazine,” Tommy said. “So, how do we start?”

“Well, it says to turn the transformer on first, then start the music. You got it?”

Tommy produced a 45 rpm record. “It was in a sleeve in the back of the magazine.”

“Wait a minute,” Timmy said. “There’s something else here.” He began to read.

“Inter–dimensional travelers be advised! There is no way to determine into which dimension your portal may open. As there are countless possibilities, and the connections are randomly made, it is imperative that you stabilize your portal once it opens. It may close anytime after the music ends, and it is unlikely that you will ever reconnect to the same dimension once it does. To stabilize the portal, you must…” The bottom of the page with the rest of the article was missing.

“What the heck?” Timmy asked.

He turned the page to find a full-page advertisement for something called The Charles Titan Body Building System. It featured an ink drawing of a bully who was kicking sand into the face of a wimp, while the wimp’s girlfriend looked on with thinly veiled contempt. “Never be humiliated again,” declared the text. “Build your body the Charles Titan way!” The mail-in coupon on the bottom of the page had been cut out.

The boys looked at each other.

“Dad?” asked Tommy incredulously.

“Let’s hope there was a money-back guarantee,” grinned Timmy.

“So, what do we do?”

“After all that work? I say we turn it on. It’s not like we have to go through it, right?”

With that, he turned on the transformer. Tommy put the record on the record player and started playing the music, Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero”.

At first, nothing happened. Then, as the music began to build, the wires began to vibrate sympathetically. Short lengths, long lengths, all began vibrating at different frequencies, responding to the complex harmonies in the music. And as they vibrated, they began to short-circuit each other, causing little electric sparks. A few appeared at first, and then more and more, until it looked like someone had opened a jar full of fireflies in the doorway.

And then suddenly, the copper wire disappeared. The nails were still there, along with their cereal insulators, but the wire was gone. They could see quite clearly into the dining room.

“What happened?” Timmy asked. “Where’d the wire go?”

Tommy, who was standing closest to the doorway, stretched out his hand to touch where the wire had been. With a crackling noise, his fingers disappeared.

“Whoa!” He jerked his hand back and held it in front of his face. His fingers were still there, all intact. He wiggled them to make sure. Then he grinned at Timmy. “Watch this.” He stuck his arm into the doorway up to his elbow. It vanished.

He pulled it back out again and waved it triumphantly. “It tingles a bit where the wire used to be,” he said. “Otherwise, no problems. Maybe I should try sticking my head in next.”

At that moment there was a crackling noise behind him, and a man stepped through the portal. He wore a shiny orange and yellow costume with red boots. His red helmet was adorned with stylized flames projecting from the sides, and the letter “I” was emblazoned on his chest.

“Captain Incendio!” The boys shouted together.

With his strong chin jutting proudly forward and his keen eyes gazing into the distance, he replied, “Yes, it is I, Captain Incendio!” Then he noticed the boys and frowned and said, “Who are you?”

“I’m Timmy Wilson, and this is my brother Tommy.”

“Am I to understand that you built this inter-dimensional portal?”

“Yes, sir,” Tommy replied. “ We found the plans in a magazine.”

“Hmm. You know, I could use lads of your stripe on my ship, the Inferno. What say you? Are you ready to become Pyronauts?”

“Are we ever!”

“Splendid!” He pointed to Timmy, “I’ll call you Flint. And you, Tommy, I’ll call Tinder. To the ship, lads! Follow me!”

He turned and stepped back through the portal.

The boys saluted and cried together, “Pyronauts, ignite!” And with a whoop they plunged through the portal. With their passing, there was a loud hum and a pop and the copper wire reappeared.

A short time later, Mrs. Wilson entered the kitchen with a bag of groceries in each arm. “Timmy!” she called. “Tommy! Come give me a hand with the groceries.” The only response she got was the quiet hum of the train transformer.

An hour after that, Mr. Wilson returned home from the office and was confronted by his angry wife. She was clutching a copy of The Mechanics of Science, and behind her he could see the doorway woven with copper wire.

“Oh no, not again,” he groaned. “What was it this time?”

“Inter-dimensional portal!” she yelled, throwing the magazine at him. “I thought you got rid of those magazines after Susie teleported herself to who-knows-where.”

“I meant to, dear, but then we had to go shopping for a new refrigerator and it just slipped my mind. Besides, the boys shouldn’t have found them. I had them stashed away pretty well…” He broke off with a sheepish grin.

“Stashed away is right! You kept them so you could sneak back to visit that eighteenth century trollop!”

“Oh, don’t start with that again!” he complained. “For crying out loud, I stepped out of line one time, and it was two hundred and fifty years ago! Anyway, I told you she meant nothing to me.”

“It happened just years ago, not centuries!” she cried. “And I’m supposed to believe that she meant nothing to you? I’m probably the only woman in the world whose husband is his own great, great, great grandfather.”

Sniffling, Mrs. Wilson wandered into the family room at the back of the house and turned on the television before flopping down on the sofa. She hoped it would discourage further discussion with her husband, who had followed her, still protesting his innocence. Well, he could go back to his colonial floozy for all she cared; she just wanted to see her boys again.

Organ music swelled from the TV, announcing the start of a children’s program. She sobbed when she recognized that it was the theme song of her sons’ favorite program and rose to turn it off. Just then, two masked figures raced across the screen, stopped, and looked directly at her.

“Hi Mom! Hi Dad!” They raised their masks. “It’s us, Timmy and Tommy!”

“Boys!” Mrs. Wilson exclaimed. “Thank god you’re all right. How did you get on television?”

“We’re here with Captain Incendio, fighting evil in the forty-third dimension,” Timmy said.

“It’s great,” added Tommy, “except that we still have to be in bed by nine o’clock, and he makes us eat our vegetables.” He made a face.

An imposing figure with a jutting chin stepped into view.

“Flint! Tinder!” he cried. “The Pestulars are attacking the planet Tragon! We must away!”

“Okay, Captain! We were just talking to our mom and dad.”

Captain Incendio peered about the television screen until he saw them.

“Ah, yes,” he said. “So I see. These are fine lads, Mr. and Mrs. Wilson. They are a splendid addition to the crew of the Inferno. And never fear, I make certain that they wash behind their ears.” Ruffling the boys’ hair, he said, “Hurry now lads, the Pestulars wait for no man.”

“Right away, Captain!” Tommy said. “We gotta go, Mom and Dad. See you tomorrow, same time, same channel.”

The boys started off the screen when Timmy stopped suddenly.

“Oh, Mom, I almost forgot,” he said. “We ran into Susie. It seems that she accidentally teleported herself to one of the moons of Jupiter. She said to tell you not to worry, that she’s okay, and she wants you to know that she’s sorry about the refrigerator.”

 

A Gift from Johnny Magemasher

by Hayley Noel Wallace

 

Hands down, the best gift I ever got was when Johnny Magemasher tried to assassinate Stupefying Stanley. Since then, I’ve had a few come close to topping it: one Christmas, I got a Nintendo 64 and my ungrateful twit of a sister got a cell phone; she ended up using her “year’s” worth of minutes in a week. The 64 lasted me five years. At fourteen, I got a little mongrel puppy that turned out to be half Dalmatian, half Great Dane; he’s been my constant companion ever since. I’m about to graduate and I can only imagine what kind of treasure I’ll come across then. Still, no present, no accidental discovery, has ever managed to outshine what I got from Johnny Magemasher, the day of my eighth birthday.

The morning started out hectic and stayed that way. When I went downstairs, my mother shoved a bowl of Raisin Bran in my general direction. She was wielding a two-handed pair of scissors through a series of cut-out cardboard circus animals with frightening intensity. I’d wanted an android-themed eighth birthday, but it had been vetoed.

“I don’t want Raisin Bran,” I told her. “I want Coco Puffs.”

“No, Bryan. You’re going to be having god knows how much sugar later.”

“But it’s my birthday. I want Coco Puffs.”

“No, Bryan.”

“You let Lacey have whatever cereal she wanted on her birthday.” Lacey was fourteen at the time. “You let her have four sodas.”

No, Bryan—”

“And I only want one bowl of Coco Puffs.”

“ALRIGHT, BRYAN, FINE!” she shouted, red-faced, and nearly lopped off a cardboard lion’s ear. “DON’T BLAME ME WHEN YOU COLLAPSE INTO A SUGAR-INDUCED COMA!”

So I got to eat my Coco Puffs. Lacey came downstairs five seconds later and my mother insisted she eat the Raisin Bran I had rejected. Which set Lacey off, since now it was too soggy and had no taste and she liked her raisins dry and her bran crunchy

My mother raised the scissors up and gave them a resounding snap. Lacey didn’t argue anymore after that.

“You’re so not getting a present from me, you little doosh,” she mumbled at me from a mouth full of soggy bran and wet raisins. “Not that I had one for you anyway.”

I was actually relieved to hear this, as my sister’s “presents” were always things even parents know not to give: metric rulers, packs of notebook paper, protractors—now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure every time my birthday or Christmas rolled around, Lacey just took a dig through her old school supplies.

Once we were done with cereal, I was told to go wait out in the front yard. “And don’t forget your birthday hat!” Mom exclaimed, as if I were heading into a NASCAR race without my helmet. My birthday hat was just the same stupid cone that everyone and their aunt’s cat wears on their birthday (well, my aunt’s cat wore one).

Once the hat was snapped on, I found my dad outside.

“Happy birthday! Eight years old! That’s ancient! Over the sand hill! Don’t go dying on us now!”

“It’s not so old,” I said.

“What’s your mother’s mood like this morning?”

“Okay,” I said.

“Is she still, er… cutting things?”

“Yeah.”

“Hmm… well, guess I’ll just take another walk around the block.”

I wanted to go with him, but I had to stay and wait for guests that would not be there for another two hours. Luckily, my best friend and next-door neighbor, Chase Stephens, came out the front door after a few minutes.

“Man, you look stupid,” he said, in regards to my hat. “Happy birthday.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“I didn’t get you a present. Can I still come?”

“Let me play your Game Boy,” I said and he did. Your best friend, especially the kind that lives next door to you, doesn’t have to do much to get invited to your birthday party.

Me and Chase played the Game Boy for hours, and when guests actually did start to drive up, we were too distracted to greet, much less notice them. Besides, I didn’t even know half of these guests. Actually, to tell you the truth, I didn’t know any of them. It was my mother who had invited them, just like she invited them every year. If my birthday parties didn’t have a high attendance, she felt like she had failed me as a mother, when it was actually my fault for not making many friends. So I always ended up surrounded by all these blank, nameless faces (the majority of them girls) handing me presents, all of which had my name spelled wrong. Brian instead of Bryan. That’s okay though. Sometimes the presents were pretty good. You’d never know it, but some girls really know how to give a boy a good birthday present.

“Bryan!” my mother shouted out the front door. All the guests had piled into the house and out onto the back patio while me and Chase sat there playing Game Boy. “Get back here! It’s starting!”

The two of us went around the house and joined the crowd of little girls and their baby brothers. The mothers were already busy gossiping in the background. My mom had really gone all out in trying to make it look like a real circus. Unfortunately, that only meant it looked more flashy and foolish than I could have thought possible. Propped-up cardboard animals were scattered across the yard, along with a miniscule three ring and flags that made the animals look like they had gone under some kind of nuclear mutation.

“I thought you wanted an android party,” said Chase.

“I did.”

My mother suddenly strode out of the house with a large megaphone in hand, red-cheeked but bright-eyed. “WELCOME! WELCOME ONE AND ALL, TO BRYAN’S EIGHT-RING CIRCUS!” she boomed, and all the other mothers tittered. The randomly assorted children threw their hands over their ears.

Chase cupped his palms around his mouth. “There’s no such thing as an eight-ring circus!”

My mother gave him a murderous look, and I think she was about to say something inappropriate, but my dad quickly intervened, grabbing the megaphone.

“WELL, THERE IS NOW,” he boomed, “AND YOU’RE HERE TO SEE IT! THE ONLY EIGHT-RINGED CIRCUS IN THE WORLD!”

“I only see one three-ring! And you couldn’t fit a dog in it!” Chase has always been a bit of a smart-aleck.

Luckily, Lacey brought out the ice cream cups at that moment, so any further debate with Chase over the number of rings at my circus was forestalled. My mom stood over the children, screaming through the megaphone that they could only have one cup each. Me and Chase successfully managed to steal five and gorged ourselves behind the broad back of a cardboard elephant.

“Is anything good gonna happen at this party?” Chase asked, ripping the lid off our last cup, a strawberry, face already smeared with chocolate, vanilla, and fudge swirl.

“I dunno,” I said. “Mom’s got some guy called Stupefying Stanley coming.”

“What is he? A clown?”

“She couldn’t get a clown. He’s a magician.”

“Huh,” Chase grunted. “More like Stupefyingly Stupid. She should have at least got a monkey or something.”

“She couldn’t get a monkey,” I said.

“What all couldn’t she get—”

“BRYAN…!” my mom bellowed, swooping down on us and the elephant. An unbearable stream of static flooded into our ears. “WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING?! STUPEFYING STANLEY IS GOING TO BE HERE ANY SECOND!”

“More like Stupefyingly Stu—” Chase began, but mom had already grabbed us by our collars and yanked us away. I was told to wash Chase off with the backyard hose. By the time we rejoined the crowd, Chase was a sopping mess, so my mom made him sit in the back where my dad could keep an eye on him. I was bussed up to the front and told to stay put.

My mother ran back and forth between yards, even though she had Lacey on sentry duty upfront. Suddenly, we heard the megaphone trumpeting, “RIGHT HERE! RIGHT HERE, MR. STUPEFYING!”

I sighed.

“WE’RE SO GRATEFUL TO HAVE YOU, MR. STUPEFYING!” my mom was bellowing at Stupefying Stanley. “A MAGICIAN IS JUST WHAT THIS PARTY NEEDED!”

“Please, just call me Stanley,” I heard him reply, “and I’m not a magician. I’m a prestidigitator.”

“PRESENTER, GOT IT. IN ANY CASE, MY SON AND ALL HIS LITTLE FRIENDS JUST CAN’T WAIT TO SEE YOU!”

“These are my instruments. Might you assist me in carrying them, girl? Now… if you could please direct me to the stage.”

“IT’S NOT SO MUCH A STAGE AS A, UM… PATIO…”

This guy sounded like a world class jerk. If I was going to have to sit there and let someone pretend to find a quarter in my ear or chop my dad in half, I at least wanted them to be pleasant. He had the appearance of a world-class jerk too. He wore your typical magician’s apparel: black cape, penguin suit and shirt, with frilly cuffs and a tall top hat. His hair was black and patchy underneath the shadow of his hat; his mustache thin and dangling, like a pair of disgusting, furry ribbons drooping from a bike’s handlebars. He’d lined his sour, red-rimmed eyes with liner, for mysterious effect, I guess, but it only succeeded in making him look sloppy and stiff at the same time. He was thin, but not willowy—scrawny and breakable, a well-dressed twig. I was incredibly underwhelmed, and my expectations hadn’t been that high to begin with.

Stupefying Stanley raised his head up, as if he could see better looking through his nostrils, and his watery little rat eyes widened. Surely, my mother had told him he was going to be performing for a bunch of little kids? I thought. Who was he expecting to find in our backyard? The royal Hungarian family?

Lacey, wearing an expression not so far off from Stanley’s, stomped in behind him, lugging a bunch of heavy-looking boxes under her arms. He didn’t offer her even a nod of thanks, although that didn’t exactly make him any worse in my eyes. He continued to hold his nose up and give theatrical blinks, waiting for someone to explain us.

Several of Mom’s friends said hello. Stupefying Stanley didn’t acknowledge them. My dad came up to shake his hand. Stanley’s arm sprung up like it was run by a machine; I suddenly thought that maybe he would have made a good android.

“ALRIGHT, EVERYBODY,” Mom announced, striding back with the megaphone balanced on top of a few more boxes. “GIVE STUPEFYING STANLEY A BIG BRYAN EIGHT-RING CIRCUS WELCOME!”

A “Big Bryan Eight-Ring Circus Welcome” apparently consisted of my mom and dad and several middle-aged woman clapping and shouting “YAY” with varying amounts of enthusiasm, small children looking confused, and Chase, thankfully inaudible, shouting, “Stupefyingly stupid!”

Stanley was less than gracious of the welcome. He waited for it to abate, then impatiently flipped his cape back.

“If you’d all sit… down…” he said, each word snide and faintly trembling.

Everyone sat down. Stupefying Stanley gave a great sigh as my dad resettled himself next to Chase, then put a finger on the rim of his hat.

“Since the dawn of time,” he began to murmur, “there have always been two types of human beings: those that slave away at attempts to pin down miracles, classify them, like butterflies in binders, and those whose very existence is a living, breathing miracle in itself. I,” he gave a pretty unimpressive spin of his cape, “belong to the latter category.”

He waited, I don’t know what for. We all just stared. Eventually, he continued.

“What is the definition of a ‘miracle?’ One might say, any, unexplainable, inconceivable occurrence in this world. Or, perhaps you might say a miracle is a piece of evidence, a manifestation, of the divine acts of a god.”

Again, a pause.

“…I stand before you. Am I inconceivable? Am I a piece of proof that gives you faith in a Creator? How do you define the miracle that is me? Perhaps you don’t believe in miracles. Perhaps you put them in the same category as illusions, phantasies, cheap parlor show tricks. But I assure you, ladies and gentleman, I am no hollow fancy. I am not made up of whimsies and what ifs. What I do is what I am. And what I do… and what I am… are miracles. Is a miracle,” he added quickly.

Several of the other parents were looking at my mother as if she was insane, instead of doing the proper thing and looking at Stupefying Stanley, who was insane.

“It’d be a miracle if he shut up,” I heard Chase whisper in the silence, but Stanley didn’t notice. Once again, he was glaring down at me.

“Now I will begin… my first miracle of this miraculous hour,” he murmured, and turned around to open one of the boxes he had brought. He rummaged through it with nimble, precise movements, then brought out what, I’m almost a hundred percent sure to this day, was a real human skull.

“Ancient voices from the past…” whispered Stupefying Stanley, cradling the skull in his palm. “Let your whispers reach through the gate and pass from this dusty vessel to the soul that would be your retainer…”

“I thought he was supposed to make balloon animals or something,” one mother murmured.

“Yes… yes…” Stanley was hissing. He placed the skull onto the ground and reached back into the box. He then began extracting an abundance of crow feathers and a very large vial of red, murky liquid. “The barrier does not exist within, but is, your mind…”

At the very next second, three things happened. One, my mother started to stand up and stop Stupefying Stanley with her megaphone. Two, Chase had taken all that he could stand, and began to shout, “Stupefyingly STUPID!”

Three, time stopped for everyone but me and Stupefying Stanley.

It was just like you always see in the movies. The birds quit twittering, the trees quit shifting, because the wind quit blowing. All the people around me had their faces frozen like they’d been paused. The gate that had been creaking back and forth was still. The flies and mosquitoes, buzzing about for ice cream and blood respectively, were transfixed in mid-air.

I threw my head around, taking all this in, then looked back to Stupefying Stanley. He had dropped the feathers and vial, the contents of which now spread in sludge puddles over the patio. He squinted, then whirled around, scanning the frozen treetops. The sound of his cape swishing was a thunderclap, the only sound in a soundless world.

“Who are you?! Where are you hiding?!” he shouted and it was like the volume of my mother’s megaphone had been multiplied eight times. I think I might have let out a small whine of distress. Stupefying Stanley wilted over his own echo.

“Well now, there’s a stupid question.”

Even if time hadn’t been stopped, that voice sounded, and probably always will, like it belonged to the only man speaking in the world. It had a calm, fluid quality, disrupted only by the bitter bite and hint of hysteria dripping off the end.

Stupefying Stanley squinted at the roof, as did I.

“I’d have expected more from you, Stan.”

A figure dashed forward and flew off the roof in a white blur. When it landed, it had knocked the very dust out of the air it leapt through, leaving a man-shaped stain in the sky. Someone had jumped off my two-story house’s roof. He is the young man that made me forget all about androids, all about spaceships, dinosaurs, trucks, basketball, video games, you name it. He is the young man that made me a lifelong magician enthusiast.

He wore a clipped white cowboy hat over his wet and glistening golden hair. His ears were pierced with small jewels the same color as his glowing, scattershot eyes: royal purple. They had some kind of flame inside of them, one that crackled and burned a hole through everything they glimpsed. His little teeth, bared in a grin, were sharp and jagged, like they could bite a hand and tear it off too.

He wore a long white trench coat with golden buttons, currently undone and displaying a slender, but muscular chest, the kind Lacey had plastered all over her walls. I don’t know if she would have put him up; he also wore long white bell bottoms with matching white converse, and a drooping belt with a gaudy fake diamond in the center. Pretty tacky, even to an eight-year-old.

Contrasting with all that white was what he carried in his left hand: dangling by the ears was a fat, not in the least bit distressed, black bunny rabbit. In his right was the sort of wand you always expect magicians to have: a thin, cylindrical stick. This one was pure ivory with black tips.

“Surely you’ve heard the rumors, Stan.” The young man dropped the rabbit, which began hopping unenthusiastically off to the side. He took a few darting steps towards Stanley, the tail of his coat gliding above the ground, wand outstretched. “That Johnny Magemasher was coming to see you? Except they’re not rumors, Stan. I’m here. I’m here to make this forsaken place your grave!”

He made it sound pretty epic for a patio. In any case, before Stupefying Stanley could get a word in edgewise, Johnny Magemasher raised his wand and shot what can only be correctly recounted as five fat mauve tentacles, a’la octopus, covered in sticky pale suckers that dripped and bubbled with yellow acid. When I say he shot them out, I mean that they came from the tip of his wand; the tip of his wand having turned into a black hole about six feet long and filled with black fire, you see.

The tentacles snaked towards Stanley. I watched, expecting to see him crushed, sucked, and scalded, thinking that before they could squeeze the life from him, the acid would probably burn its way through his skin and disintegrate his heart.

Instead, Stanley pulled a wand out his own pocket, its colors the inverse of Johnny’s. Another portal, this one white, wispy, and a bit smaller, opened at the end. From it came a sea of yellow flame that jumped onto the octopus tentacles and devoured them.

Johnny Magemasher let out a low swear and pulled away. The tentacles were gone, charred ashes, but the black hole had not disappeared. Johnny snapped his handsome jaw from left to right, then made a dash for the backyard, where the cardboard circus lay.

“What do you think you’re doing, you half-wit?!” Stanley shouted and comically capered after him, the white hole remaining over his wand as well. I looked down at the fat bunny, who was sniffling my knees, then gathered it up. On an impulse, I carried him with me to the edge of the patio for a better view of the ensuing battle.

“I already told you, Stan! It’s payback time!” Johnny Magemasher dipped his left arm deep into the black hole, rummaging about as if were a very large purse.

“You’re using magic at a BIRTHDAY PARTY!”

“Your…” Johnny waited until he had drawn a very long, very sharp, shining steel blade with a crystal hilt out of the black hole to finish, “POINT?! HA HA HA!” Rockets went off in his eyes.

“Oh for…” Stanley dipped two fingers into his portal as well, a million times less enthusiastic. “You fool. Don’t you know anything about magic?”

“How to USE it, OBVIOUSLY!” Johnny Magemasher crowed, and over his black hole grew a shield made of oak wood, covered in twisting green vines and purple thorns. He raised his sword in a flashing arc, then came flying forward, tongue hanging from his open mouth.

“There are two types of people in this world that are unsusceptible to magic… those blessed with it, such as myself, and somehow, the likes of you…” Johnny was closing in on him, but Stanley hadn’t even broken a sweat, still fishing through his portal, “and those that are currently experiencing their day of birth!”

“Like I care!” Before Magemasher’s blade could lop off Stanley’s head, Stupefying plucked a small, square piece of glass out of the portal. He held it up between his middle and pointer fingers. In seconds, it expanded to the height and width of a meter on all sides. Stanley took a leap back as Johnny’s sword slammed into and shattered the glass.

“Let the brat watch!” Johnny continued, raising the shield over his head; he used it as an umbrella, still sneering and giving panting grins. “I didn’t freeze time so I wouldn’t have any witnesses, Stan. I did it so you’d be an easy target!”

“Oh excuse me, my mistake,” Stupefying sniffed, and held the cloudy portal straight over his head. Immediately it began to double, triple in size. “Let me offer you a few obstacles, so it won’t be too simple.”

“Thanks!” Johnny barked, the shield on top of his portal vanishing. He threw the sword forward, trying to impale Stupefying through the chest, but the leftover glass sprang up and assembled in a makeshift barrier. “I’ve been waiting ten long years for this! Might as well make it an experience!”

“You incorrigible brute…” Stanley muttered, a bead of sweat dripping down his nose and dangling on the tip of one end of his mustache. “I’ve never even seen you before!”

Something long, pink, and whip-like darted out of the giant portal.

“Yeah you have, Stan, you’re just not thinking hard enough.” Magemasher was letting his black hole grow too, straight in front of him, as opposed to letting it swirl above. “Why don’t you take a look at little Billy over there and tell me what you see?”

The forked tongue flicked out of Stupefying’s portal once more, then the hint of a white snout. Even though he was looking at me, I couldn’t meet his eyes, too riveted by the portal. Whatever it contained would emerge in seconds.

“Your average, garden variety bunny rabbit,” Stanley spat, and it burst through: a monstrous, porcelain white cobra, with beady red eyes and flared nostrils that could have sucked me up like a reptilian booger. Serenely, it slithered out of the portal and curled around Stupefying Stanley.

“That’s not a rabbit!” Magemasher yelled, and for the first time seemed to have anger mixed in with his aggression. “That’s my brother! You made him that way!”

“What?!”

A wet, whiskered pink nose burst forth from Johnny Magemasher’s portal. Stanley’s cobra let out a fearful hiss and unraveled so quickly that its scales skinned the grass out from under them. It stood itself up straight, straight as a snake can stand, and curled its skin around its skull, creating a hood that made its eyes glistening rubies.

“Don’t tell me you actually forgot! Come on! Johnny and Winston! The twins!”

A black mongoose, bigger than my house, came skulking out of Johnny’s black hole. It looked up at the white cobra and bared its fangs, back bristling, tapered tail raising. While the two snarled and hissed at each other, Johnny Magemasher and Stupefying Stanley stepped off to the sidelines.

“I don’t know of any Johnny and Winston twins.”

“Like hell you don’t!”

The cobra swept down to take a bite, but the mongoose was too quick. It darted to the side and collided with my dad’s shed, leaving an impossibly large dent.

“Listen, simpleton, why don’t you take a moment to explain this madness! If you can!” Stanley snapped, then gave a snort of disgust when a shower of mongoose spit rained over him, Magemasher, the rabbit, me, and all of the frozen party guests.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah…” Johnny whispered, shaking a few pieces of glass off his trench coat. He reached down and scooped up the rabbit by its ears, brandished it at Stanley. “Does this jog your memory?! Look into his eyes, Stan? Can’t you see it? His suffering? His despair? His rage?!”

The bunny wiggled its nose. In the background, the cobra let out a long stream of bubbling venom that missed the mongoose, but not my mom’s vegetable garden.

“Fine, let me reeducate you, Stan. Let me tell you the story of the two boys whose lives you ruined,” muttered Magemasher, taking the rabbit and setting it back on the ground. It hopped back over to me.

“One day, thirteen-year-old Johnny and Winston Humberg went to go see a show. A magic show. Stupendous Stan would be performing his world famous tricks in the town square. Free admission to anyone with ‘an open mind and an open heart!’ We were thrilled! A free magic show! Since when did anything like that happen in a small town like ours?”

The mongoose leaped and took a chunk out of the cobra’s upper body.

“We left the house at seven thirty sharp, just so we could get front row seats. The place was packed. Everyone in town, from the littlest brat to the oldest fart, had made their morning schedule clear, just so they could go see Stupendous Stan. Me and Winston got seats at the very edge of the front row. We were so excited that we couldn’t sit still.”

Two thick fangs raked over the mongoose’s body, leaving dual, bleeding rivers that wept over the cardboard animals my mom had made.

“You came on, Stan… and you were incredible! Right from the get go, we knew we were in for a real show. Do you remember what you wore? A big black coat and opaque white sunglasses. Your hair was white too, bleached that way. You had dark skin, a handsome tan, not the dorky farmer kind me and Winston had. Changed a lot since then, haven’t you? Thought you could play chameleon and avoid me, huh?”

“Apparently,” Stupefying Stanley sighed.

“You did all sorts of magic, Stan. You started with the usual stuff—gloves turning into doves, ribbons coming out of your sleeves, coins disappearing, kiddy stuff. Then it started to escalate… you turned your chair into a panther, the panther into a woman, with thick black hair and golden cat eyes. You took two cups, placed them on top of each other, then poured wine in. When you passed it into the crowd, the cup underneath was filled with wine too! Not only that, but another cup under that one appeared! Every time it was passed, there was another cup, magically filled with wine—plenty to go around! And not only THAT! Whenever it got to a kid, it turned into kool-aid! Pretty impressive, don’t ya think?!!”

There was a tremendous quake as the cobra toppled to the ground; the mongoose had climbed its sprawling body and dug its fangs straight through the snake’s skull. Its eyes glazed over with hate and bloodlust.

“Each act was more magical than the last. Everyone was so entranced that we let it go on late into the night. Strangers driving in wondered where everyone was, then found the square and got caught up in your tricks just like everybody else. Nobody left. Nobody could even think about leaving. You created clusters of fireflies to keep your show lighted. You fed and watered us so that we never got hungry or thirsty. And no one was about to go to the bathroom, when they could hold it in just a little longer, just until they saw one or two or three or all of your acts!”

Even as the cobra thrashed, the mongoose would not let go. It recognized that its nemesis was dying, so it kept itself latched on, fur matted with blood, claws skidding and sliding over dirt and snakeskin.

“At midnight you announced you would be starting your final act of the night. Everyone let out a sigh. We could have watched you forever, Stan. Still, everyone’s enthusiasm was rekindled when you announced that your last bit would be the night’s one and only interactive trick.”

The cobra let out one last burst of venom; its marble red eyes rolled up into its skull, white.

“It’d be a very simple trick, you warned everyone. One that we’d all seen before, sometime, somewhere. Still, we all screamed and shouted and waved our hands like our lives depended on being chosen. And you scanned the sea of townsfolk from behind your white sunglasses, your gaze impenetrable, your decision impossible to ascertain!”

The cobra spasmed. Still, the mongoose did not let go.

“And then, you said it. His name, like you’d known him all your life, like you were two old friends and it was time to do a boy a favor. ‘Winston Humberg,’ you said. ‘Ah, you lucky chump!’ I shouted, and so did everyone else, but we were happy for him, because we were happy about everything. You spread your arms and Winston dashed up on stage.

“‘Winston,’ you said, ‘would you be my assistant?’ And of course he said yes. His cheeks were flushed. He’d never been so excited. You placed your hand on his shoulder, then bent down and whispered things in his ear. While you were whispering, he looked at me. He smiled, real big, like he couldn’t wait to tell me something. That was the last time he ever looked at me, with those eyes.”

The cobra was long gone, but the black mongoose had not released it. Its eyes were still misty, its teeth still buried into the serpent’s neck, drawing cold blood.

“You took a cape—your average magician’s cape. You told Winston to close his eyes. You waved the cape one, two, three times. After the third wave, you threw it on top of him. It fell flat against the floor, and there was nothing underneath but a small, squirming lump. There it was: a black bunny rabbit.

“You apologized again for ending the show with such a stereotypical trick. We’d been a great audience. Now you had to pack your bags and go. Other towns waited. Good night folks! And of course, we all shouted good night back.”

That’s when I realized it; about the mongoose, I mean.

“I ran up to find Winston, but there was nothing but the rabbit. I searched everywhere, but I couldn’t find him. I called for you, Stan, but you weren’t there to answer. When I looked backstage, all your props, your panther-lady assistant, the big black van you had rolled in on, all of it was gone. Vanished. Kaput. Without a trace. Do I need to explain anymore, Stan?”

The venom had already worked its way into its veins. It had died from the poison. I wondered who on earth was going to be able to move the corpses of a gigantic cobra and mongoose from my backyard. Not my mom, that’s for sure, no matter how determined she was to make this the perfect birthday party.

“YOU TURNED MY BROTHER INTO A RABBIT! FOR TEN YEARS, HE’S HAD TO LIVE LIKE THIS!” He pointed at the fluffy creature sitting on top of my foot. “AND FOR TEN YEARS, I’VE HAD TO TRAIN MYSELF TO BECOME WHAT I HATE THE MOST! A MAGICIAN!”

“You trained yourself to be a magician?” Stupefying Stanley asked, faint admiration evident in his tone.

“That’s right. I taught myself the mindset, the spells, the movements… I’ve learned it all! And it all started with one little sentence… that’s all it took for me to get motivated! ‘Kill a magician, and every spell he’s ever cast will be broken!’”

At this point, he brought his wand forward and reached inside, but before he could yank out a chainsaw or a machine gun or who knows what, Stupefying Stanley shook his head.

“You fool. You’ve got the wrong man.”

Magemasher faltered. “What do you mean I’ve got the wrong man?!”

“I’m Stupefying Stanley! Not Stupendous Stan, you IDIOT! The differences between us are innumerable… our technique, our status, our breeding… Stupendous Stan is a morbid, sociopathic nightmare, with a fetish for metamorphosing! I am Stupefying Stanley, the miraculous—”

“You’re kidding.” Johnny Magemasher’s jaw dropped and his black hole swirled round until it dissipated, scattering in a thousand different directions. The wand fell from his hand. “You’re kidding me. You’re not Stan?”

“NO!”

Magemasher’s violet eyes flashed for a moment, then he closed them and put a finger to his temple. “I knew you looked different… still, I looked it up in the directory… Stan… Stanley… ARGH!” He suddenly plucked Winston off my sneaker, raised him up to eye level. “After all this time… looks like he’s still one step ahead of us, Winston.”

“He’s not one step ahead of you, you’re just one egg short of a full basket, my friend!”

“Don’t worry,” Johnny continued to reassure Winston the rabbit, “Just a minor detour. I’ll find the real Stan in no time.”

“You fool! You nincompoop! You insufferable moron! You nearly killed me for a crime I didn’t commit!”

Magemasher gave me a look, a “can you believe this guy?” droop of the eyes. He entrusted Winston into my arms, then glanced over his shoulder with a jagged grin.

“Ah, no. I’m still going to kill you.”

Stupefying froze. “What?”

“I only became a magician so I could do two things: one, get my brother back to normal. Two… make sure that I’m the only one left in the world!”

A burst of white lightning sizzled out from Magemasher’s wand; it crashed into Stanley and sent him staggering. His cape and cuffs crackled and fluffed out with electricity; his droopy mustache stood straight up.

Johnny chuckled, triggering the glowing black hole over his wand again. “Disguising your magic pocket as, well, nothing. Oldest trick in the book. Guess you didn’t think I’d read that far back.”

Stupefying tried to say something, but his words came out in useless wheezes and moans. I doubt he was trying to plead for his life. Probably just more insults.

Johnny Magemasher drew the crystal-hilted sword out again; he raised it over his head, and when he reached Stanley, started to bring it down.

“Hey, wait!” I said. A part of me wishes I hadn’t. Seeing Stupefying Stanley’s head getting sliced off would have been cool. Traumatizing, sure, but cool.

“Ahhhhhh, come on, kid,” Johnny growled, shooting me something between a snarl and a pout. “Don’t give me all that ‘You can’t kill him, it’s not right, you’ll never be able to live with yourself’ crap.”

“I’m not,” I said. “Still, I don’t want you to kill him.”

“Why the hell not?”

“He’s a really crappy birthday magician,” I said. “My mom’s already freaked out about that. If you kill him, I don’t know what she’ll do.”

“Oh, it’s your birthday? How old are you?” he asked, genuinely interested. One thing I definitely learned about Johnny Magemasher that day: he has a very limited attention span.

“Eight,” I said.

“That’s not so old.”

“No.”

“Still… seems like your mom did try real hard to make your party cool or whatever,” said Johnny, with a respectful nod towards the cardboard circus animals that formed a mourning circle around the dead cobra and mongoose. “Only mistake she made was inviting this idiot.”

Stupefying Stanley let out an indignant respiration.

Johnny Magemasher looked from Stanley to me, to the sword, to Winston, then to the sky. His white cowboy hat fell over his pierced ears as he searched it. Then he smiled, baring his pointy little teeth, and threw the hiltless sword over his shoulder.

“Fine, fine. Since it’s your birthday. That’ll be my present to you, kid: not killing this guy. Gotta say though, sounds like a rip off.”

“Could you get rid of all the… stuff, too?” I asked. Stuff meaning the sword, six-meter-long cobra, three-meter-long mongoose, broken glass, venom, spit, and rabbit crap.

“Sure thing, kid. Once time starts again, everything will be back to normal. Except you.” He gestured at me with one gloved hand. “You’re not going to be a basket case after all this, are ya?”

“No,” I told him, “I’ll be okay.”

“Alrighty then…” Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a pair of mirrored sunglasses and slipped them on. He took Winston the rabbit by the ears, and grinned. “You just tell your mom, and all your little friends’ moms one thing: don’t ever hire a magician named Stupendous Stan. Heck, don’t even hire a magician at all. Get a pony or something.”

“She couldn’t get a pony,” I said.

Johnny Magemasher shrugged and took a step back. “Whatever. See ya kid.”

“I hope you get Winston back to normal soon!” I exclaimed, but I don’t know if he heard me. The very next second, three things happened.

First: “ALRIGHT, WHO’S READY FOR CAKE?” my mom shouted through the megaphone.

Second: my father let out a dramatic gasp, but only because he was the first to notice what had happened to the backyard. Johnny Magemasher had gotten rid of all the “stuff” like he promised, but he hadn’t put the grass back where it had been uprooted, fixed the apocalyptic ruin our vegetable garden had become, or undone the huge dent put into the storage shed by the mongoose.

Third: my best friend, Chase, yelled at the top of his lungs, “Stupefyingly STUPID!”

It worked out pretty well, all things considered. Stupefying Stanley was so, well, stupefied, by his near-death experience, that he actually conceded to do as my parents asked and put on cheap parlor show tricks. He wasn’t very good at them, but at least I got a quarter.

My father and mother were at a loss when it came to the backyard. Later on, after Stanley left, my father wondered out loud, in the ghost of a whisper, might it have been the spirits from beyond the gate? My mother protested that it was the new insecticide. How that also managed to explain the dent in the roof, I don’t know, but nobody argued with her.

I got some pretty good presents from the strangers. Not a single person spelled my name right, though—not even my parents. On the bicycle they gave me, it said, in big letters, BRIAN. Apparently it was Lacey’s fault, since they had asked her to write it. She didn’t even remember how to spell her own brother’s name. I wished Stupendous Stan would turn her into a rabbit. See if I would have cared.

Of course, as soon as Bryan’s Eight-Ring Circus was closed down for the night, I took Chase aside and told him the whole story. And he believed every word of it, because who doesn’t believe a story like that? Especially when it’s told to you by your next-door neighbor and best friend on the night of his eighth birthday. However, he noticed something that I hadn’t thought of.

“Yeah, but who’s to say that that really is Winston?”

“What?”

“Maybe Stupendous Stan just did what magicians usually do. Maybe he just made the real Winston fall through a trap door and replaced him with a rabbit real quick. Then he took Winston off with him—kidnapped him.”

“But that would mean, for ten whole years, Johnny’s been carrying around…”

“A rabbit? Yeah,” said Chase. “Guess he never thought about it.”

“Guess not.”

And that’s more or less where it ends. I never heard anything more about Johnny Magemasher or Winston. I did hear that Stupefying Stanley quit his job and went home to live with his mother. No big loss to the birthday world, I’m sure.

So that was it. The best birthday I ever had, and the greatest present I ever received. Johnny doesn’t know it, but what he gave me that day was a gift that silently continues to flavor my extraordinarily ordinary days, in all sorts of distant, enigmatically beautiful ways. The small piece of truth I carry with me, that magic is real, it’s my secret spice for life.

I think about Johnny Magemasher all the time… I wonder if he’s found Stupendous Stan and extracted revenge. I wonder if he’s been reunited with his brother. Most of all, I wonder if what Chase pointed out ever occurred to him. That all these years, he’s probably just been carrying around a plain old rabbit, thinking it’s his brother.

I kind of hope not. For the rabbit’s sake.

 

Black Eyes

by HJ Taylor

 

The coffee lady was very pretty, although she wasn’t quite a lady… not yet. The waitress probably couldn’t be much older then Beans’ big brother at college, maybe even the same age. But Beans couldn’t look away from her eyes. No matter her position or angle, those eyes looked black. Only the glare from the window reflected off them. The shine followed Beans like those eyes on the eerie museum paintings.

Beans watched her flow from one countertop to the other, more like a dancer then a waitress, not just working some dumb old job. Beans admired her precision and agility. First, she shot brown stuff into a narrow paper cup, then white stuff, next a little bit of powder, some syrup, and finally the steaming water. By the smile on every customer’s face, perfect every time.

Barista, her mother had corrected her so often that whenever she heard the fancy word it almost made her puke. Beans knew that barista was just a fancy term people used to make themselves sound more important than they really were. Once when Beans’ mother was lecturing her on the difference, the girl had overheard. After her mother had finished making her point and gone over to a shelf to examine some ceramic coffee cups, accompanying the most amazing smile, the girl had put her finger to her lips.

“You’re right, hon,” she whispered. “I’m just a waitress. Our secret.” She shushed Beans again with a polite blow of breath against that same finger, and busily got back to work.

On that day, Beans knew the girl had noticed her. More importantly, Beans had taken further notice of the girl’s eye color, too. An electricity ran between them in that instant, and with it, a lifelong familiarity. From that day on, they were both somehow connected.

The waitress was short, and very thin. Her long dark hair, as usual, was in a pony—loosely tied with a black hair band—two symmetric strands framed her little round face that was always full of life, as if she knew something that no one else did. But Beans was drawn to those eyes. They lived somewhere else with an aura all their own, blacker than a moonless night! They seemed to make holes that bore through to somewhere else.

Today Beans had decided to play a game called, “Don’t look at the coffee girl’s eyes.” But every time she came here, the game got harder and harder, as if some kind of magnetism kept her hooked. Yes, the lady smiled a lot, but it wasn’t her mouth that made her always look happy. The sensation came from some secret hidden in those deep black eyes. “Ahh!” she muttered and lightly stamped the shiny tile floor with her glittery silver sandals. She only lasted thirteen seconds today.

No customers ever complained when the black-eyed girl served them, which was quite odd because they always yelled at the other ones. No matter how long the line or how tense everyone was, as soon as they had their turn with the coffee girl, the customers seemed to relax. Not just most, but all of them, one after the other. Her tip jar was always full. Beans shook her head wondering if she was some sort of a witch. A good one for sure, she thought and giggled.

Like any other time, today the coffee girl wore black tights and a tight black sleeveless shirt with a turtleneck. A white and green checkered apron hung on her, awkwardly out of place with the emblem of the Main and Cox Java is Life coffee shop slapped directly in the upper center of it—a kangaroo forever smiling while holding a cup of steaming coffee in front of his own green and white checkered apron. Below the waitress’s neck hung a silver chain, and hanging from that chain was a round, shiny, black stone with silver metallic rays like the sun spraying out from the center. The silver chain jingled and the pendant jumped as she bent forward to greet the next customer. Why was she here, Beans wondered?

Then Beans tensed. Next in line was the dreaded, apple man. He was a nasty, skinny, frail looking old fart who always wore a Sherlock Holmes hat. Beans’ face wrinkled. His head jerked about like a snake ready to defend himself. Beans didn’t like this slouchy old guy. He was rude and grumpy, and always pushed his way in front of everyone else. How could anyone be so frustrated all the time was what she wanted to know? Sometimes he was absent minded, other times the bully, and if he didn’t get his way, he mumbled and moaned until the manager came out and did whatever he wanted. One day he even got a guy fired!

How could anyone be like that all the time? Beans could think of no such reason and she didn’t feel sorry for him at all. No one deserved to be that mean, not every second of every day, and Beans could imagine nothing to make such a person. Beans almost cringed when he waddled up to the smiling, always gracious, black-eyed waitress. “Not good,” she muttered. The girl glanced over the old man and gave Beans a reassuring wink. Beans’ eyes grew wide.

Gritting her teeth and every muscle tight in anticipation of the upcoming lopsided confrontation, Beans wrung her tiny fingers. Oh, what might happen? she wondered. The old man was looking at his shoes, those same old sandals he always wore no matter what the weather. The confrontation was about to begin and Beans was not at all sure she could bear it. Those in line had already pulled back as if an invisible barrier had sealed them both away from the rest of the world. Not having the coffee girl in her life would be horrible.

The young girl responded back to the man in a voice that nearly sang. Only the man could hear exactly what the girl had said, but despite his mutterings, the black-eyed waitress seemed not a hint flustered. She nodded, and politely waited for the man to lift his face.

Beans watched his skinny little turtle neck holding that wart-filled face jerk upwards. His expression was already filled with anger in anticipation to one upcoming problem or another. An odd flash made Beans blink and when she was able to focus again, she saw… no, more felt, a warm light connect the old man’s eyes to the barista’s black ones. His warped expression changed, first to curiosity, then to awe. For once his drawn cheeks didn’t turn red, and his shoulders didn’t shake. The apple guy wasn’t mad!

His mouth fell open in a dumbfounded circle. The tremor that determined his shaky body and wiggly hands stopped, even his breathing seemed to hesitate, as their eyes locked on to one another. The waitress said nothing, just tilted her head the slightest bit, as if doing so was the exactly proper angle to meet such a stubborn old man. There was a pause, just a short one, and then both people changed, as if the color around them had brightened. When the world started up again, the moment had passed, and life, once again, was pleasant and hurried.

Bean let go of her mother’s hand. Her jaw had dropped. “Holy cow,” she whispered, and as if the phrase was a cue, the black-eyed girl turned to Beans. Their eyes locked for a moment that seemed like hours, and not only couldn’t Beans turn away, but she wouldn’t have tried for anything in the world.

In one circular swoop, the young woman spun about the coffee shop kitchen and put the old man’s order together with not so much as a stammer or a stutter. Without changing pace or switching up direction, the waitress snapped the lid on and had a protective cardboard sleeve Beans’ knew was called a zarf on the steaming cup before the old man even spoke. With one hand the black-eyed girl put the cup on the counter, and with the other, she gingerly grasped his frail-looking slender fingers and led them to the zarf as if he were blind.

He smiled and Beans saw someone she didn’t recognize. Putting his other hand on top of the black-eyed girl’s, apple man gave her a few words of his own. She giggled and fiddled with her necklace as if smitten with his compliment. With not a sign of irritation from any of the patrons behind, the old man and the One True Barista exchanged a few more words before the old man said his farewells, and the next person stepped up.

Beans’ glanced up at his face. The guy wasn’t as old somehow, and he walked more upright. The corners of his mouth were more upturned, and his skin seemed less wrinkly. The age spots and ugly warts were still there if Beans looked close enough, but they were faded and certainly less noticeable. His jerky movements were more fluent, and his shakes and jaw clasping were gone. As he came closer to Beans, this time very close, not taking the time to veer away as he always did from anyone else, Beans could see what else had changed… his eyes! For once she didn’t back out of his way.

Beans felt dumb for gawking, but she couldn’t help it, couldn’t even blink! His eyes were a lovely, lively, sky blue, the color of a younger man’s. For a moment the world shimmered in that odd way it sometimes did just before Beans blinked out, and then she was gone. The old man changed before her very eyes. Like always when the world shimmered, Beans left.

 

The ceiling fan disappeared, and the space where it had rotated in that lazy way, was now blue sky with puffy white clouds. Beans clearly heard seagulls, and the happy giggles of little children. Then she saw the old man; his body appearing before her the way a reflection might after the disturbed water stopped shimmering. Although he was much younger, handsome even, Beans could tell it was him. Sure, he was still small and thin, but his muscles were tight and chiseled. He was happy and confident, not nasty and hateful. At his side was a small, brown-haired woman, neither pretty nor homely, but adoring of her three children that hung about them both like monkeys. The lady’s hair was drawn back in a tight bun, and her skin milky and soft. She wore a plain dress trimmed in a dull pink, and the five of them strolled along the beach together where they casually turned into the dry sand as if they had done so a million times. They all disappeared atop the porch of a wonderful beach house, giggles and laughter fading away with the sea breeze.

Beans understood this man wasn’t exactly the old man from the coffee shop… not really. This was a different version of that man. But this wasn’t the old man’s past, or a dream either. This was him, the old man’s soul anyway, somewhere else, in the area in between, in another world and place. As always, Beans watched the vision as a ghost that was looking in, invisible to them all, just watching as an uninvited observer of their life. Then the vision disappeared, and the slowly turning fan re-appeared.

 

For a few seconds Beans maintained a blank stare, unable to move. Then she snapped back just in time to realize the happy old man had spotted her. With a coordination and approach Beans thought would have been impossible coming from this person, he reached down and stroked her cheek. His eyes left Beans for a moment to send a respectful look to her mother, then he spoke.

“Such a lovely little girl, you are, little Miss. Certainly you are.” Then he began to whistle a tune Beans could not place, but which was pleasant all the same.

Beans felt a tight squeeze from a proud Mom. But the pressure from her mother’s hand was far away, as if it touched someone else. The world stayed fuzzy and surreal for a while longer as it always did after Beans faded out. When focus returned, her eyes were once again locked onto the coffee girl’s as if they had been patiently waiting for her return. They lingered, then pulled away playfully.

Awkwardly, Beans turned her attention to the glass panels that lay over the cabinets under the countertop. Inside were the usual things sold at a coffee shop: several types of gourmet coffees, mugs, a set of fancy wine glasses, recipe books, gourmet popcorn, desserts. On the ends of the case was an array of stuffed toys, all of the store’s mascot kangaroo in various positions and doing funny things. As her mind cleared, Beans saw her reflection.

Beans considered herself a fairly plain six-year-old girl with long dirty-blonde hair, and a blue headband with a tiny bow to the side. She had large eyes and a slightly upturned puggish nose that looked tiny and cartoonish in a favorable kind of way. She was small and thin, but agile and quick. Beans wore leopard tights, a blue dress full of green, orange, and yellow peace signs, and a white tee-shirt with butterflies scattered about. She often wondered why adults fussed over her so much. But Beans’ reflection wasn’t clear in the shadowed glass.

At first she thought that maybe she was still dazed from the little “mind trip” she had just taken, but after a second she realized that was not the case. The cabinets were poorly lit, which made her reverse-self look dull, so she moved closer, close enough that her nose nearly touched the glass. The background behind her reflection did not match the background of the coffee shop. Past the glass, Beans couldn’t make out the backboards of the cabinet either. The wall was gone and the space went on and on to somewhere else.

 

Where am I? she thought.

“In between,” a whisper told her, a familiar voice that she recognized. “An amazing place that helps me see why people are the way they are. How they’re supposed to be, which explains the frustration that makes them sad and sometimes mean.”

 

Beans snapped upwards to the countertop when she heard the coffee girl’s voice. Normal sounds and smells returned. Her mother busily chatted with a lady from her work.

“And how are you?” the black-eyed girl politely asked. Her voice was a bit raspy, but trustworthy. “There’s more to it than that,” she added.

It was her, Beans thought as she studied the girl, hesitant to admit what the waitress might be trying to get at. Then as if all perspective had disappeared, their faces came together, and where the young lady’s features should have been, was spiraling blackness. Like magnets, her dark swirling eyes drew Beans to them, and this time the glare from the coffee shop windows was gone. From a distance the girl’s eyes looked all black, but close up she could see an astounding distinction between the black of her pupil and the darkness that made up the iris.

Like dark gray smoke, the irises exploded and imploded within themselves as if they were angry thunderheads of a great storm. Moving constantly, they never maintained the same pattern for any length of time. The haze folded and unfolded, as if they reached outwards forever, but never really got to the outer part of the circumference. In the next moment they were slate gray smoke billowing out and twisting in. Beans’ focus was drawn inwards toward the center of that storm, and there she fell into the jet black holes that were the coffee girl’s pupils.

 

Beans felt her insides stretch, being sucked into a whirlpool of black. First, her head elongated and was sent through, then the rest of her body followed like a rubber band that had reached its ultimate length of elasticity. When the butterflies in her stomach settled down, she was somewhere else.

But not alone.

Gently caressing her hand was the coffee girl. Splendid fragrances filled her nose. Funny insect sounds, bird tweets she had never heard before, and animal howls filled the strange forest that now surrounded them both. The air was warm and moist, with the barest taste of salt.

“Hi, Beans,” the waitress said, then closed her eyes. Flaring her pretty nostrils, she inhaled deeply. “I’m Manna.”

The pretty name brought a smile to her face. “Where are we, Manna?” Beans asked, turning about a half circle in each direction, unwilling to let go of Manna’s anchoring grip in fear she might disappear and be lost forever.

“One of my favorite spots in the entire universe, Beans.”

Although Manna had not answered her question very specifically, Beans decided she didn’t need any more information than that just yet. She loosened her fingers and pulled away to grab a peculiar purple flower off the mossy ground. Sliding her last finger along Manna’s, Beans glanced back.

“That’s okay, Beans. You did this all by yourself. You can let go.”

“What did I… we do, Manna?”

“This is called slicing,” Manna announced.

“Slicing?” Beans questioned, and the world swam before her eyes again.

 

“On the house, young lady!” said the coffee girl as if nothing had happened, and she laughed out loud.

Beans’ mother laughed too and patted her hand. The coffee girl laid a huge slice of coffee cake she had removed from the platter within the glass cabinet that Beans was still dumbly staring at.

“You don’t have to do that, hon,” Beans’ mother protested. Then she noticed her daughter staring blankly at the space beyond the waitress. Not another one, she thought and her own anxiety kicked in. She looked behind, embarrassed, and then gave a weak and worried smile to the barista.

Beans’ mother snapped her fingers in front of her daughter several times and stabilized her shoulders by moving behind her. She lovingly kissed her little girl’s ear and whispered into it. She looked up briefly to the people nearby including Manna. “Petit mal,” she explained. “A minor type of seizure she’s had since she was very young. It will take just a moment and she’ll be alright.” Everyone shook his or her head in understanding and backed away slightly to give them room.

Manna smiled knowingly but said nothing. “I had them, too, when I was young.”

A moment later Beans widened and closed her eyes several times. Her pupils dilated then constricted and finally adjusted appropriately. As if she was seeing something else in her mind, a wide smile of amazement grew on her blank face. Briefly she scanned her surroundings and bobbled her head about trying to find Manna.

“There she is!” the waitress announced. She locked eyes with the young girl, nodded her head slightly back and forth, and made a shushing sound with her lips. “A good slice?” she asked and handed Beans her cake.

For only a moment Beans looked confused, but being a very bright and perceptive girl, the entire situation kicked in and made sense. “Amazing,” she said between front teeth that looked too big for her head.

“It’s just the beginning,” Manna said and put her hand comfortingly over top Beans’. She moved from behind the counter, bent down to her knee and hugged Beans securely. Adding a kiss on the cheek, she whispered so no one else could hear. “My eyes didn’t always look like this, you know. They were amber like yours. We’re going to have fun together, you and me.”

Beans’ eyes grew wide and she smiled ear to ear. Her mother beamed and wished every young adult was like the black-eyed coffee girl.

 

Eternal Poetry

by Laurel Anne Hill

 

I stare at Mom, can’t believe what she’s just said. Dad invited Gunther to the family party next Friday? Gunther the Gross? The lecher from the blood lagoon? That letter Gunther sent me five years ago—the description of my vulnerable white throat—bordered on vampire porn. No explicit sexual language, but I could read between the lines. Mom can’t possibly expect me to show up and meet him face to face, can she? Besides, I’ve got a date with Lenny, the non-Gunther… the sweetest man ever.

Oh, god. I may have to tell Mom and Dad about Lenny.

“Gunther’s rather crazy about you. You shouldn’t make yourself so scarce when he comes to California.” Mom minces an onion, her shoulder-length auburn hair swept back with silver combs. Her knife blade taps against the wooden chopping board. She blinks, eyes watering. “He’s just lonely. You ought to give him a second chance.”

Excuse me? Mom’s ignoring basic facts again. I’m twenty-five years old. Gunther’s three hundred. I eat raw vegetables. He prefers raw steak. I want a loving, nurturing relationship. He wants to lay me and drink my blood. Gunther’s more than “rather crazy” if he thinks he’ll attract me. He’s insane.

“We’ve nothing in common.” I wrap a lavender muffler around my neck and button my black leather coat.

“But he’s one of your dad’s best friends.” Mom’s voice has that quiver. Her big brown eyes widen, as though she could shapeshift into a cocker spaniel.

I’m about to get “The Lecture.” How Gunther smuggled Dad out of Paris during the French Revolution. How Dad smuggled Gunther into Paris during World War II. I don’t need to hear yet another rendition of this male bonding saga. Time to tune out, get out and bring Lenny dinner.

“Let me think it over,” I say and retrieve my handbag from a kitchen chair. “I’m meeting friends in San Francisco. Don’t wait up.”

The think-it-over period ends five seconds later. Sorry, Mom. I’ll head for S.F. this Friday night, too.

The screen door squeaks and closes behind me. The chilly December air feels good against my face. I climb into my white Honda and drive toward our local Italian deli. Dad’s so traditional. Preparing garlic bread at our house is politically incorrect. Lenny adores garlic. He’s my kind of vampire.

Mom and Dad… they’re so dear. They should back off, though. Sure, a dot com downsized me two years ago. Yes, I had to move back home. But I design websites and don’t ask my parents for money. I’m capable of running my own life. And I intend to run it with Lenny around.

Light shines inside of Delano’s Deli, although it’s past closing time. I knock on the door. My order’s packed and waiting. I place the warm bread and pasta on the floor of my car, near the heater vent. The Caesar salad goes into the trunk to stay cold. Soon I’m approaching the Golden Gate Bridge. The aromas of garlic and parmesan inside my car are amazing. Lenny is going to love this meal.

I Googled websites for supernaturals three months ago and met Lenny. He’s thirty-some. Works nights as a museum security guard. I’ll hang out with him until dawn. He occasionally does the blood experience thing—not with me—but never obsesses about it. I don’t drink blood at all, although the trait’s in my genes. I’m just not ready. Besides, I haven’t been through “The Change” yet. That might not happen for another ten or twenty years. There’s no predicting when. Lenny respects my feelings, doesn’t try to push me. And he writes free verse for Poetry Flash. Totally cool.

Traffic slows a little on the bridge. A stream of headlights blazes from across the divider. Holiday shoppers heading home to Marin County. The holidays… I’d really love to see Aunt Millie and Uncle Claude this Friday night. My second cousin Vinnie, too. But Gunther might arrive before I leave to meet Lenny. Okay, so what if he does? I’ll tell Gunther to stay out of my space. He’s got no right to ruin my family’s reunion.

Five minutes from the museum, I ring Lenny on my cell. I park in the usual spot. My headlights illuminate a tall, hairy form. That face… like Disney’s Beast on a bad hair day. The figure wears a guard’s uniform. Must be Lenny. I didn’t know he could shapeshift. Most vampires can’t. And what set him off? I roll down the window a few inches.

“Is it safe for me to open my door?”

“All clear.” Lenny breathes hard. “Couple of punks just tried to spray paint a statue in the courtyard. I scared the shit out of them.”

“Awesome.”

But, is it? Are there other major things about him I don’t know?

Lenny grins and shrugs, resembles a huge stuffed toy. God, he’s so cute, cuddly and kissable. I could curl up next to him in bed. We haven’t had sex together yet. Maybe he planned to surprise me this way the first time. That must be the reason he didn’t reveal his shapeshifting talent before.

If only I could introduce him to my parents, be more open about our future. But security guards don’t earn big money. And his mom lives in a trailer in rural North Carolina. He sends her a check whenever he can. Gunther owns a Manhattan penthouse. A private jet, too. Dad probably won’t approve of Lenny. But, wait, don’t I want to run my own life? I should ask Lenny to our family party now.

I climb out of my Honda, then picture Gunther meeting Lenny. I’ve never actually seen Gunther, not even his photo, although I once sent him mine. Bet he looks like the Terminator, only with Goth makeup and fangs.

I envision a confrontation. Gunther paws me. Lenny sprouts hair, snarls and leaps to my rescue. Fur flies. Mom screams. Neighbors dial 911 and Animal Control. I die from embarrassment. No, I can’t invite Lenny to this particular party.

“About Friday,” I say, as I remove the salad from the trunk. “My family is having a gathering. I might get to S.F. an hour late. Is that okay?”

“That’s what I want to talk to you about.” Lenny sounds excited. He picks up the foil bag of pasta and garlic bread. His fur recedes. He’s almost back to normal, now. “I’m reading my latest poem this Friday night. At this incredible new literary bar in Sausalito. You won’t have to drive anywhere. I’ll pick you up at nine-thirty.”

“My place?” If hearts could sink, mine would beat between my toes.

“That’s all right, isn’t it?” He scrunches his eyes. A lock of his curly black hair dangles between his bushy eyebrows. “I mean, if it’s a problem for you…”

My mind gropes for words, like a mountain climber struggling for footholds. Lenny’s sensitive about his iffy financial situation. I don’t want to hurt his feelings. And this isn’t the right time to mention Gunther.

“A storm’s predicted,” I say, “and your truck needs new brakes. Let me drive you.”

“A friend promised to work on my truck tomorrow.”

“Then… there’s no problem.” I flash a quick smile. “Hey, I’m really excited for you. This could take your writing career to the next level.”

And I am happy for Lenny. Except, what am I going to do on Friday night?

* * * * *

The minute hand on our mantel clock advances with a muted click. Eight o’clock. Guests should arrive soon. I straighten the holly garland festooning a nearby mirror, then curl a strand of my cocoa-brown hair around my first finger. The crimson sequins on my dress shimmer. Bare shoulders, calves and knees. Perhaps I should wear something less revealing.

Mom sets a platter of rare roast beef on the buffet table. Sprigs of parsley rim the border. Bloody juices ooze from the slices and pool beneath the garnish. Christmas colors of the macabre kind.

I place cocktail napkins near the crystal punch bowls. The smaller bowl contains eggnog. The larger one holds Dad’s infamous red punch. That color and texture don’t come from tomato juice. I’ll stick with eggnog tonight. I’m sure Cousin Vinnie will, too.

Gunther could be here any minute. Yet there’s still time to tell Mom about Lenny. She hums “Jingle Bells.” Looks so happy. Dad, dressed in a charcoal gray suit and green shirt, stuffs another oak log into the fireplace. Sparks scatter, like a flurry of red rain. A velvet ribbon decorates his thick salt-and-pepper ponytail. He glances toward Mom and smiles. This is their special party and they want to include Gunther. I would be selfish to darken their festive mood. Tonight, flying sparks are only permitted in the fireplace. And that’s exactly what I must say to Gunther—somehow—when we are alone.

The doorbell rings. I wait near the hearth. Mom gushes out a greeting. Dad calls my name. I straighten my posture. My three-inch heels clunk against the hardwood floor. This is it.

Dad’s hugging someone a little shorter than he is—a man, medium build and approximately Lenny’s size. Must be Gunther, although I expected a body builder. The guy has dark hair. I can’t see his face, though. But, wait… his hair appears so familiar… is as black and wavy as Lenny’s.

Then Dad steps aside. It is Lenny! But they don’t even know each other. What the hell is going on? And Lenny’s wearing an expensive tweed sports coat. He only owns uniforms and jeans.

“And you must be Angela,” Lenny says to me. He winks and extends his arm. “That high school photo you once mailed me hardly does you justice.”

But I’d sent that photo to… Gunther. Oh, no! I stammer the “F” word, run to my bedroom and slam the door.

Gunther stalked me. Used someone else’s name. Baited an electronic trap. Never wrote a poem in his life. Right now, he’s probably laughing with Mom and Dad. Telling them the whole ridiculous story, including the bit about his mom in North Carolina. I was so stupid and gullible. Totally out-of-touch. I sit on the edge of my bed and sob. If this were a reality T.V. show, I’d be voted off the island.

The doorbell rings. Relatives must be arriving. I refuse to endure Gunther’s smirks of satisfaction. I’ll stay where I am.

Then I remember. I wasn’t completely honest with him. Couldn’t even admit to Mom and Dad that I dated him. But Gunther’s—Lenny’s—betrayal of me is a far worse offense. Yet, when we were together, he was so much fun. Those words in the website ad. “One in search of another. Objective—eternal poetry.” How does he really feel about me?

Someone knocks on my bedroom door.

“Honey,” Mom says, “are you okay?”

I hadn’t wanted to spoil the party. I stand and face myself in the mirror. Vampires do cast reflections, despite the urban legend. And I’m twenty-five. Ought to be able to handle what’s just happened.

“I’ll be out in a minute.” I apply fresh mascara and lipstick. Raindrops dot my window, now.

The house buzzes with vibrant conversation as I walk toward the living and dining rooms. An array of platters smother the buffet table. Aunt Millie’s squash roll-ups… Cousin Vinnie’s artichoke frittata… raw carrot and celery strips… crisp snap peas. These are food gifts from my family. There for me.

Dad motions for me to hurry. He stands in front of the fireplace and claps his hands.

“My good friend, Gunther Morris,” he says, “has joined us for this special occasion. Few know, but his poetry has been published under a variety of names for two hundred years. I’ve asked him to read.”

So at least that part is true. Gunther doesn’t look at me. Just as well.

Then he reads. Words flow from his mouth, like a gentle stream tumbling over smooth rocks on a bright spring day. The volume intensifies, ebbs and flows like tides. He could be thirty or three-hundred. His verse is timeless—beautiful.

But who is he really? Dad’s friend and ally? The sensitive poet? Or the creep who wrote me that disgusting letter five years ago, that page I flushed down the toilet before anyone else could read it? Perhaps he’s a combination of all these people. Or, entirely different.

I can’t sort out his identity now. Only one decision matters. Do I, or don’t I, walk away from our relationship tonight?

He finishes reading. Aunt Millie daubs her lace handkerchief against the corner of her eye. Mom sniffles. Gunther proposes a toast. His gaze locks to mine.

“One in search of another.” He raises his cup. “May we share eternity with the true love we each find.”

Everyone raises a cup of Dad’s red punch, even Vinnie. I don’t have any cup. Mom gestures toward the eggnog. All wait for me. I’m old enough to serve myself. I approach the table.

The eggnog sits to my left—smooth and palatable. A symbol of my life until now? To my right is Dad’s red punch. My inevitable future. Which beverage should I choose?

Gunther’s letter… I sift through the memory of his written words. I once told him I read Anne Rice. Maybe he got the wrong impression. Lightning flashes beyond our picture window. Thunder rumbles. Gunther probably didn’t mean to offend me, just crafted a message for a real vampire.

One in search of another? He found me. Yet I continue to hide from myself.

I ladle red punch into a clear cup. Tiny clots dot an ice cube. Will this stuff make me gag? The mantel clock chimes, as though answering my question. Time to find out.

I raise my cup.

And whatever else happens before dawn, I’ll finally tell Mom and Dad about Lenny.