by Kristina Ten
“It’s no use being a magician’s girlfriend,” Mal’s friends warn her. “He’s still not going to tell his secrets.”
In the beginning, it is a harmless, innocent thing—a daydream born during a matinee show, sometime between the audience-warm-up card tricks and the tide of applause when the volunteer’s missing twenty dollar bill finally reappears.
The magic shop is in Boystown, sandwiched between the wig store and a bakery that sells delicate frosted cakes and sugar cookies shaped like various genitalia. Across the street, one of the city’s longest-running drag bars emits steady thuds: bass downbeats and the sound of stiletto heels making impact with the stage. Every time the door opens, neon light spills onto the sidewalk, looking thick like blood, like something you could scoop up, before it vanishes back into the room.
Mal finds the magic shop while running errands one morning. She remembers something else being there—an arcade? an optometrist? organic pet supplies?—but that’s Chicago for you: businesses coming and going, new businesses taking their place. The facade is painted black and a large window the height of the first floor offers a view of the shop’s innards: velvet-covered walls hung with old-timey portraits; dark wood furniture carrying magical paraphernalia and dust.
An ornate decal on the window spells HOODWINKED. One segment of the “K” tapers to a violent point: a dagger that stabs the unsuspecting “E” in the back.
Books on close-up magic share the shelves with oversized card decks, plastic wands, and the odd piece of juggling equipment. There are strings of colorful scarves and self-cutting rope, two-headed quarters and trios of aluminum cups packaged with as many bouncing balls. Rubber pencils and other novelties go cheap, while blacklights and smog machines wait toward the back for those with more to spend. On the glass counter sits the taxidermied rabbit that Aaron trusts to man the cash register when he is away.
Aaron: Just Aaron, as Mal will come to know him. Not Aaron the Awesome or Aaron the Amazing or anything like that. He makes a point of this at the start of every show, says fancy stage names are a kind of distraction, and not a kind he is particularly interested in.
For those not coming in to browse, Aaron is the main attraction—but it’s a small BYOB outfit in a pricey part of town, so he works the door and takes tickets, too. This is the first revelation for the audience at any show: that the faceless, baseball-capped kid who welcomed them in minutes ago, who waved them in the direction of the bathroom when they’d asked, is now standing on the stage introducing himself as the night’s entertainment, a flashy sequined blazer thrown over his V-neck tee.
It causes an immediate shift in the dynamic, the staff becoming the headliner, and audience reactions range from surprised laughter to the embarrassed shifting of bodies in creaky theater seats. But Aaron always wins them over.
“Are you ready to see some miracles?” he bellows, arms stretched wide. The room erupts as the spotlight catches his teeth.
“Make me disappear,” she says in the dream. It’s early June this time and Chicago is thawing, and the dream blankets have been kicked to a dream pile on the dream floor. They are inside, alone, somewhere in the direction of the baseball stadium. Her words are drowned out by a home-run cheer.
“Make me disappear,” she says again, louder. She is more demanding in dreams, he has noticed. He picks up one of the blankets, a scratchy wool quilt, and throws it into the air so that it drifts down over her naked frame. Warm light streams in through the window and throws a spotlight on her arm where it protrudes from one corner of the quilt.
“No,” she pouts, flinging the blanket aside. “That’s just covered up. That’s not disappeared.”
A cloud passes across the sun, and for a moment the golden wash on her bare skin goes gray.
He grins. She could have it her way then. The street noise outside quiets. He crawls onto the bed on all fours, inching up until his face hovers directly over hers. When he lowers his body, they make contact at their navels first, then at their chests and along each limb. His palms find her palms. Their thigh bones are four rolling pins; his slide over hers, painfully, from one side to the other.
When his full weight is on her, more or less evenly distributed, they are like two duplicate bodies on a folded paper people chain. Looking down from above, you wouldn’t be able to see her at all.
“Poof,” he whispers into her hair. Their cheeks press together.
She smiles, responds, “I’m gone.”
During the first show, Mal convinces herself that it is the magic, not the magician, that fascinates her, as if one can be evaluated in a vacuum separate from the other. And the act really is something special. While the merchandise is the sort you might expect from any modern magic shop, the show defies all expectations.
After the requisite is-this-your-card gag and the materializing of coins from behind the ears of children, the tricks take a turn for the unusual. Some are irreverent and experimental, others dark and even frightening. One high-stakes guess-the-number bit involves Aaron holding a staple gun against the vein of his neck, a staple remover at the ready. Mal inhales sharply at the sight of the metal teeth bared vampirical.
Nothing feels cheesy, like you sometimes get with one-man shows, and everything is brought up by the intimacy of the room. The theater seats only eighteen, which means the magic happens mere feet away, close enough to breed discomfort. From the back row, you can see beads of sweat forming beneath the brim of Aaron’s hat—a different hat every night, from what must be an extensive collection. From the front row, you can hear his every swallow; quickly, Mal gets the feeling he can hear hers, too.
No doubt the magic itself is captivating. It’s regularly praised by local publications and cited in the shop’s glowing online reviews. But after a few shows, Mal has to admit that it is something about Aaron that keeps her coming back.
Aaron is magnetic. He takes command of the space, dripping charm, navigating the prop-laden stage and narrow, dimly lit aisles with confidence. His jokes are timely and provocative without crossing into vulgarity—or if they do cross into vulgarity, they do so in a way that eludes the parties most likely to take offense.
Of course, everything Aaron says during his act is another kind of distraction, though this is a kind he enjoys very much. A misdirection. Listen to the winsome magician make light of the city’s history of electing corrupt politicians; pay no mind to the ball he keeps stored in his left sleeve.
The banter is what cements Mal’s interest in Aaron, and also what leads her to believe he will never feel the same way. There are innuendos, flirtations: the exaggerated wink toward the audience while swallowing a balloon sword. The comment, during the cut-and-restored rope trick, that he personally won’t get out of bed for less than six inches.
Considering these, and the shop’s location, and the time a silver-haired man volunteers a hundred dollar bill and Aaron twinkles his eyes at him and calls him daddy… Well, Mal draws her conclusions. And she tries to put daydream Aaron—Aaron the Amorous, the Admirer—out of her mind.
But try as she might, as the weeks pass, her thoughts drift to him more frequently and her hunger takes root and grows. She looks for him where she knows she’ll find him: in the shop at showtime, and the rest of the time, in articles online. Research confirms some things she has pieced together already—that his reputation is sterling, that his shop is the talk of the North Side, that his shows sell out nearly every night—and new information, too. Notably, that he was something of a child prodigy: the youngest magician ever to be admitted into the exclusive magic club in Los Angeles, the one in the Hollywood Hills whose name even non-magic-lovers know.
The prodigy interview is dated a decade in the past. All the reviews and stories on Hoodwinked were published within the past year. In the time between, Mal can find nothing at all.
It is a tiny morsel, but it is enough. Mal looks for any excuse to continue coming to the shows, never tiring of them though the tricks vary little from night to night. She brings friends and family when they visit from out of town, even if they have expressly asked to see the pier, or the pub Al Capone frequented in his heyday, or the famous bean-shaped sculpture downtown. She brings dates and forgets their names as soon as the curtain is drawn.
Entertainment is meant for consumption, and Mal consumes Aaron completely. She sits in the audience smoothing her hair, silently wishing to be brought up on stage so she can be the one to pull the thirty-foot paper streamer from his throat. Afterwards, she goes home to look up each of the tricks online. In truth, she doesn’t care all that much how they work.
“Let me be your assistant,” she says in the dream. “Doesn’t every magician need a good assistant?”
“I don’t really do the kind of magic that requires assistance.”
He looks up at her from his place between her knees. She is an amusing one, so insistent. So giving of herself and keen to please. Maybe he could find something for her to do. It brings him no pleasure to always say no.
He rises to his elbows. They are in the room again, but now the Cubs have lost and the air outside is muggy and deflated with disappointment.
“Where’d you get that hat?” She sits up, the bones of her back rattling the headboard. It’s a Cardinals cap, one he hasn’t worn before. He has no allegiances; even so, some might take it as a death wish to be wearing the opposing team after a game like tonight. Thinking about it tickles him: what’s the most they would dare, the worst they could do?
She reaches down and taps on the brim. “Isn’t it silly to wear one all the time anyway? Even when you’re totally undressed otherwise?” She takes hold of the brim and starts to lift up.
A snarl. In one swift motion, he throws her hand aside and darts to the top of the bed, sending her tumbling to the floor.
The eager ones bring a different energy, he reminds himself. It is worth it, to a point.
The show’s finale is a mind-boggling number that features five locked safes of different sizes nested inside one another, and within the final and smallest one, the private thought of an audience member that Aaron couldn’t possibly know. Mal is never called up on stage or asked to write her innermost thoughts on a slip of paper; there is always someone celebrating a birthday or bachelorette who is outed by their entourage and given preferential treatment. In fact, show after show, Aaron makes no indication that he recognizes Mal at all. She reasons that with so many shows a week, and all the recent publicity, it must just be a sea of faces to him.
Until, one night, while producing cards from thin air—a crowd favorite, still—Aaron casually scans the audience and, for a split second, rests his gaze on Mal. He wears a top hat this time, though he could have a heap of dead doves on his head for all Mal cares once their eyes lock. She feels her pupils quake. There is a sudden hollowing out of her stomach that she associates with homesickness, the pitting of avocados.
Then come the dreams, that night and for six consecutive nights after. In them, magicians’ props dance across Mal’s bed. Silk scarves stuff themselves into her mouth until she retches; silicone thumb tips pinch her earlobes and work their way down. She wakes up at first light, throbbing, or she stays paralyzed late into the morning until she is able to scream herself awake. In the worst dreams, an invisible hand holds a blowtorch to a sheet of fireproof paper, which remains unscathed and intact as Mal watches her limbs give into flame.
The next time Mal goes to a show, she feels compelled to stay after the final bow. She has always rushed out, too anxious to meet Aaron, too aware of the divide between them: she the consumer and he the consumed. She lingers in the theater as the last audience members depart, a group of rowdy twenty-somethings in matching David Blaine Live Tour T-shirts. Aaron stands behind the counter near the entrance, playing the gracious host to the very end. He laughs good-naturedly at questions that start with “We know you can’t tell us, but…” He shakes hands and distributes refrigerator magnets splayed with the Hoodwinked logo.
He has been waiting.
He pulls a bottle of water and a pair of plastic cups from behind the counter.
Plan to turn that into wine? Mal thinks but stops herself from saying aloud. Aaron smiles his transfixing smile.
And just like that, Mal is the magician’s girlfriend. It happens quick as a finger snap, quick as these things happen sometimes. He doesn’t tell her any of his secrets, but he does let her in on some things. And that’s all Mal wanted in the first place. It was always the magician, she is certain, not the magic, that captured her interest, after all.
Aaron is like no one she has been with, attentive and relentless and exhausting. Even after a night of back-to-back shows—or an all-nighter spent, he explains, working out the details of a new trick—he seeks her out. He calls her his muse, sometimes. Other times, his escape. They walk along the lake, marveling at its vastness, the idea that there could possibly be land on the other side. They slink into basement jazz clubs where they hold hands and Mal sips gin and tonics and Aaron drinks nothing, but with his spare hand taps his long magician’s fingers on the table to the beat.
Back at his apartment, or hers, or in the stock room at the shop, Aaron runs his finger along the length of Mal’s spine. He presses his thumb into the base of her skull, plays her like an instrument.
And Mal conforms to him neatly. To his shape and to his days, too. Shrinks and swells, stills and vibrates to meet him wherever he may be.
“Aren’t you late?” she asks one morning. The shop opens at eleven on weekdays. One of the perks of owning your own business, she supposes. It’s not as if he’ll be scolded for clocking in late.
But when Aaron peels back the curtains, it’s dark outside, and Mal realizes the day she’s thinking of has already passed.
Mal grows thin. Wakes up ravenous but forgets to eat. Eats, then remembers that it makes her sick. Finally understands what people mean when they say they can feel the weather in their bones. Her sleep patterns become erratic. When she starts to miss classes and her friends, the same ones who warned her about the futility of dating magicians, call to ask her what’s going on, she lets it go to voicemail.
Later, after she’s resurfaced from one haze and before she enters another, she tells her friends what she believes is happening. That she skipped a flu shot and it’s come back to bite her, or that the pollen this season is really knocking her out.
Days bleed into one another, then clot. Mal spends most of her time in Aaron’s apartment, watching daytime television and twirling a fork through the takeout noodles she can’t bring herself to eat. She goes to the magic shop when she can stomach the commute, which isn’t often. Aaron says that’s probably for the best: she’s seen his tricks so many times, he’s worried she might actually start to figure them out. Besides, if she does want to see them again, he could give her a private show. That wink again. That smile.
On days when the fog lifts and Aaron is away, Mal is struck by a swift, acute panic. How many people are in the audience tonight? How many smooth their hair and hope? When the magician reaches deep into his pocket for a folded piece of paper or a skeleton key, how many pairs of eyes rush to follow his hand into the intimate dark?
“Say what you mean,” she says in the dream.
“What are you talking about?”
They are at Belmont Harbor, watching the boats get picked up and hauled off to storage for the winter.
“You never say what you mean. You just say abracadabra.”
“You’re being dramatic.”
An older man in a heavy coat pulls a thick rope out of the water and begins to work out a complicated knot. The news outlets are promising a long, hard winter, and the forecast seems to weigh on his every move.
“You say abracadabra and you send me away.”
“I need time to work on the act. You know that. It gets busy around the holidays. People like to see something new.”
“That girl is something new.”
“What girl?” The laughing woman who wears platform tennis shoes and half her hair shaved, who has been to the show more than once, more than twice—it hasn’t gone unnoticed.
He sighs. This is a new energy, one he doesn’t much care for. Insolent, tedious. Perhaps a change of subject.
“Do you know what abracadabra means?”
She stares ahead, watching the hulls bob and sink. The man in the heavy coat tugs at the knot with steady patience.
When she doesn’t answer, he tries again. “Well? Abracadabra. Do you know what it means?”
She snaps. “Everyone knows what abracadabra means.” There is a sneer in her voice as she waves her hand in a jerky figure eight, miming a magic wand.
He continues, softer now. “Abracadabra. It’s an old phrase, very old. Older than Chicago, the US even. Older than clocks, time as we know it. Aramaic, or Hebrew. It translates to ‘I create what I speak.’”
In an instant, her expression slackens. “I create what I speak,” she repeats, trying the words out in her mouth.
He nods. “See, it’s not just some made-up mumbo-jumbo. There’s a power to it.”
She turns toward him, looking bemused. “Abracadabra.”
“It’s a long word, isn’t it? Takes up a lot of space. No room around it for anger.”
She smiles vacantly, then turns her head and fixes her gaze on some point in the far-off distance. On the dock, the man in the coat loosens the knot and sets his boat free.
The magician’s apartment is sparsely decorated, curiously so, the very opposite of the magic shop. While the shop is crammed with vibrant miscellany and smells of old books—like wool left in the rain once and never properly dried—the apartment has sleek, dust-free surfaces and the distinct though not altogether unpleasant scent of artificial lemons.
None of the furniture seems to serve a purpose: The coffee table is bare, as are the side tables and nightstands. There is no TV on the TV console, and the two couches appear lost and aimless, as if looking for some focal point around which to organize themselves. The fridge is never stocked and the lamps are never on, so that Mal wonders if they even have lightbulbs installed.
Not so uncommon, however. Mal has seen this approach to home decor before; it seems the preferred style of a number of men she has been with.
The walls are empty but for a single blown-up photograph of the Chicago skyline at night that Mal thinks she saw at the Schaumburg IKEA one time. Its horizontal layout stretches from one bedpost to the other, wholly inoffensive, black and white with a few blips of color denoting shop lights, traffic signals, and the like.
Mal stares up at the buildings from her side of the bed. They’re upside-down, like she’s looking at a reflection in a puddle, only the puddle is floating above her, just out of reach. It’s been one of the bad days, and the photograph only makes her feel more disoriented.
Aaron sleeps soundly beside her. Mal realizes this is the first time she has seen him sleep; he is late to bed and an early riser and in general seems to have more stamina than she. He is strange in sleep, she thinks. The moonlight hits his face at an odd angle so that his typically symmetrical, ski-slope nose looks wider and somewhat bulbous. His cheeks are tight and swollen, and all over his skin appears slightly wet. Each time he exhales, his face bounces as one, as if it’s made of blubber.
Not enough sleep, Mal chides herself. Seeing things now, delirious. Time to pack it in. She reaches for the bottle of sleeping pills she has taken to keeping nearby.
Aaron must’ve passed out, poor guy. He’d kept the shop open late for one of those small-business block parties, equal parts street festival, shopping spree, and bar crawl. Chaos. Drunk revelers probably spilled into the shop, tossing the taxidermied rabbit around like a football and pulling card decks out of their plastic sleeves. Aaron is sprawled out bare-chested and coverless but with his jeans still on, shoes kicked off haphazardly and hat placed firmly on his head.
Mal rises quietly, not wanting to wake him. She moves to the foot of the bed and starts to pull off his jeans. Given how dull her senses have been lately, she’s surprised to find that the simple act of undoing Aaron’s belt buckle zaps her with a shock of longing. Blood pounds in her ears.
Once the covers are pulled over and tucked in, Mal goes to remove his hat. It is a stiff, cowboy-looking thing—possible the block party was western-themed—and she wonders how he managed to fall asleep wearing it in the first place.
As she pulls the hat off, Aaron’s features contort past anything Mal can attribute to moonlight. His face morphs into something older and vaguely aquatic. And at the very middle of his scalp, Mal sees a perfectly circular, quarter-size hole.
The hole is the deepest shade of black she has ever seen, so black that she thinks it must be drawn in permanent marker, until she notices the way the skin tilts down around it. She wants to scream, starts to scream. She can feel the scream waiting at the back of her throat, a frantic but obedient dog.
Mal never gets the chance, though. She is mildly aware of the things that interrupt her.
First, Aaron’s eyes snap open.
Next, the hole on the top of his head splits long and wide, opening into a gaping canyon.
Then, cacophony: the sound of buildings crashing down and in, electrical wiring crackling, freeways crumbling, as if all of Chicagoland, its nearly 11,000 square miles, is collapsing into a pit the size of a man’s skull. A neat little trick, if you can stick around to appreciate it.
Of course, Mal cannot.
“You’ll have to be more specific,” he says in the dream. “There’s more than one way to disappear. Some magicians would say as many as two hundred.”
“Really? Like what?” The breeze comes in gentle through the open window. In the distance, a crowd bursts into thunderous applause.
“There are the obvious ways. Hide. Go where the audience can’t see you.”
“Or stay put, but make them think they’re looking at something else.”
She is only half-listening now. She has heard this before. Her fingers draw pictures on the skin of his chest, a dozen rectangles, a dozen little doors.
“There’s the mirror trick,” he continues, “if you can get the room set up right. Then you’ve got cameras, green screens, postediting. But those won’t work with close-up magic. With close-up, everyone is watching. And you have to play to the front row. If you can fool the people closest to you, you can fool anyone.”
She murmurs in acknowledgement. He rests his hand on her knee. She feels nice and nothing all at once.
“You’re a bad magician, you know, telling me all your secrets.”
“These? These aren’t my secrets.”
She hears him with cotton in her ears. Sleep calls to her, sweet and loving. A sleep within a sleep, a butterfly twice-cocooned. She wants to go, but wants to stay with him, too. Is there anything more delicious than being in his presence?
“I can’t stay up much longer,” she says after a while. “Will you skip ahead? Tell me the easiest way?”
“The easiest way to disappear?” He drags his hand up her thigh. Leans into her, eyes sharpening. “Sure. Just don’t exist in the first place.”
Kristina Ten is a Russian-American writer of short fiction and poetry, and a 2019 graduate of Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Lightspeed, Black Static, AE Science Fiction, and elsewhere. You can find her at kristinaten.com and on Twitter as @kristina_ten.