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