Blink

Even now, years later, I still lose sleep over the greatest magic trick I’ve ever seen. Of the nearly 500 acts I’ve watched and dispelled in Hocus Pocus Focus, a twelve-part (and counting) anthology of how magicians have continued to fool us, it is the only one to elude me, the only truth that must somehow be a lie.

On the nights that I lay awake in my studio loft in Kensington, Philadelphia, I grow more and more troubled, unsure if I’m awake at that moment because of what I’ve seen or because I still can’t fully piece it together.

Individual components of the act make sense, but as a collective work, Blink is nothing short of art. Gripping. Horrifying. Art.

As I child, I grew up a chronic liar. I lied about everything – the due date of my homework, the company I kept, down to what was in my water glass. Before the age of ten, I even passed a polygraph test after putting a firecracker in my neighbor’s mailbox. Yet amidst the more obvious benefits, the most important silver lining of this habit is that liars recognize themselves. And from there, I learned to hide among my own.

It is here that I developed an obsession with magic. An eight-year-old performing an Elmsley Count. A nine-year-old fluently fabricating forces from fanciful flourishes, false cuts, and French drops. A ten-year-old with misdirected Mercury Folds turning my marks into an obvious one ahead out.

And make no mistake, magic is nothing more than this. Between packet tricks, pattering banter, or a profonde, magic is, at its base, a lie. But it is a lie so powerful, we allow it to change our reality, even though we know it to be a falsity.

After graduating from the Columbia School of Journalism, I interned as a feature reporter for the New York Times. Most of my work involved reviewing local shows, touring with musicians from impoverished neighborhoods, puff pieces on street performers, and so forth.

Honesty, true honesty, is a rarity that I seldom find in most people. Mind you, this is quite different from earnestness. In fact, more people are more earnest than honest. Most are so earnest that they will ignore honesty, the truth, entirely. And that is a magic unto itself. A self-lie.

I will help the homeless. I will apologize unabashedly. I will get out of bed in five minutes.

Simply magical.

From the drab profiles of local draft picks and inane interviews with venerated venture capitalists, I honed in on the skill I had developed all my life.

Insincere inquiries of “How are you today?” and calculated calumniations of “I understand where you’re coming from” became the norm as I perfected my pursuit of what I had forever lacked – honesty.

And it is here that I began to write about magic. In search of truth, I dispelled how an audience member gets cut in half, how an ace becomes the queen of hearts, how rudimentary physics can win a bar bet. And these are only chapters of volumes three, four, and five.

In lying to the liars, I created my own veil of truth. But even now, I cannot lie to myself about what I have seen.

It was 3:30 on a Tuesday. After a quick coffee outside the college library, I picked up my briefcase and began my walk home from an interview with a rising street performer known as Fraz Mendax .

Fumbling through my notes from the interview, of which there was only one real usable quote, “all magic, really, is about making someone believe something they don’t want to,” a man in a black hoodie slammed his shoulder into mine, and unapologetically hurried off.

I remember this clearly, because the minute I reached my front door, I replayed the moment, noticing that one of the latches on my briefcase had been turned open.

This, in and of itself, was enough to interest me. As a liar who recognized liars, I laughed to myself realizing how perfect the sleight of hand movement had been.

A plant is typical in my profession. Occasionally, new magicians will drop a card into my bag, my jacket pocket, and once, even my wallet. All of these I ignore as passive and unimpressive invitations to their show.

But this reached a new level of quickness, agility, and improvisation that I had never seen before, much less without noticing.

With simple misdirection, I’ve seen magicians take ties off of people, but this tends to be a lengthy process, requiring multiple hand-grabs, speech, and a myriad of other tactics.

But the person here had undone both of the latches on my bag, stolen my laptop, and successfully re-locked one of the latches in an instant.

And this was only the start of the greatest act.

As I opened the front door, I remember nothing more than utter shock. An empty room with my laptop open on in the center of the floor. The memory had been erased and only a notepad window with an address and time remained.

Half-furious and half-amused, I remember dialing for the police and then never hitting send. This wasn’t thievery. This was art. Gripping. Horrifying. Art.

The venue was unremarkable, especially in the dim lights of the witching hour. Many magicians use this midnight tactic as a ploy to sell more tickets, a testimonial to their art form and the illusory nature of it, a statement that says, “My act is less about money, and more about the experience.” All it ever means to me is to pay close attention. These are the magicians worth seeing, and this one proved to be no exception.

Inside the empty basement underneath the Chinese eatery, people crammed into their seats as the popcorn machine cooked its final batch next to the hanging corpse of a pig. Beside it, the man in the black hoodie forced a stick of butter into the melting dispenser.

The clock on the concrete pillar read 3:26 a.m.

The fluorescent lights from the ceiling faded and a spotlight fell onto the man in the center.

“Good evening and welcome to Blink, a three-part magical act that will leave you questioning the boundaries of reality –“

And it is here that I stopped listening to the host. Between cheap jokes and the begrudged laughs of the crowd, I concentrated on examining the room. The concrete space was chilling to behold, with scratches on the left-hand side and a giant wet stain on the right wall adjacent the speaker from when someone had thrown up.

The warm-up magicians did nothing out of the ordinary. Quick card tricks that pull out the aces from an unopened and freshly shuffled deck, a plant in the crowd, and an impressive display of false self-mutilation.

After what had been about 30 minutes, the lights fell once more, and the host’s voice boomed forth into the audience’s concrete void.

“Prepare yourselves –“

“This is my second time and I can’t wait to see how he does it.” The man beside me whispered, and I immediately perked up.

“What?” I replied.

“I still can’t figure out even his first trick. It’s not a Boesky, or a Jim Brown . . .”

“What?” I repeated, now confounded at his knowledge of magic or simple cons.

“You know, a Jim Brown, where –“

“No, how do you know all of this?”

“Oh. Pardon me, I’m a blogger. I talk about how they do all this stuff on my website, Ghouls, Games, and Girls.”

“Oh. Incredible.” I shook my head in disbelief. “Miles Parker. Pleasure to meet you.” I extended my hand, the voice still booming in the background, now accompanied by some sort of methodical instrumental.

“Parker? As in Hocus Pocus Focus Parker?”

I tipped my hat.

“In the flesh! Wow. Man, you’re going to love this. Saw it last week. Nothing like it in any of your books. Not even –“

And then the spotlight quietly sprung to life, its beam glowing faintly against the concrete wall.

Almost transparently, the man stood more as a silhouette than a person. With a ski mask around the lower portion of his face and a snapback Flyer’s cap on, I could only make out his eyes.

Cold. Piercing. Venomous. The vibrant midnight blue against the bloodshot whites shot out into the abyss, the way an angler fish disguises itself as a lighthouse.

The spotlight grew brighter, bringing the man into focus. Before him, a table with three unopened decks of Bicycle Playing Cards.

I always stand in the back of street performer acts. Even at the low level, I’ve been recognized, and in those situations, my presence has often intimidated artists. As such, I tend to keep a low profile. My job is to elaborate and merge their trick with reality and rules – not add pressure.

Fraz Mendax stood proudly in the center of the bustling crowd, his microphone dangling pleasantly from his ear.

“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I am not a good magician.”

Everyone laughed.

He fluttered from one end of the circle to the other and leaned into the ear of the teenage girl. “I’m a great one.” He whispered.

“Yes, it is me, Franz Mendax. Master magician, purveyor of thoughts, stealer of Italian virginity, and slayer of Uncle Max’s Hot Wing Challenge.”

Everyone laughed.

“I’ve been called all these things and many more, but never just ‘good.’ Today I need a young volunteer for a card trick.” He whizzed around the front row of the crowd, his cargo jeans bunching up as he paced briskly in an awkward squat.

The children at the front all gleefully raised their hands and squealed boisterously.

Finally, he settled on a girl in a droopy set of overalls and yellow undershirt. Nervously, she came to the front with him, now aware of how many eyes were on her. She reached out to her mother in the crowd, grasping for the frilled lace edges of her floral romper. But her mother gestured for her to stay in the center, smiling back and giving the thumbs up.

Noticing her dismay, he got on one knee and whispered inaudibly into her ear. Immediately she perked up and grinned.

“What’s your name miss?”

“Lucy.” She replied quaintly.

“Let’s give a big hand to Lucy for being so brave.”

The crowd let out an uproar of applause, and Lucy’s smile stretched even further.

“Now Lucy, I need you to open this deck of cards and show them to your mom.”

Lucy flipped the pack open, dumped the cards into her hand, and ran to show her mother. Peering over the shoulder of the man in front of me, I watched her hands carefully. A white line stretched across her ring finger.

“Now, Miss . . .” He lingered for her to complete the sentence.

“Jennifer.”

“Miss Jennifer. Let’s give a slightly less big round of applause for Miss Jennifer.”

Everyone laughed.

“Miss Jennifer, I want you to verify that the deck looks complete. Two through Ace of every suit.”

She fanned the cards quickly, flipping them over to inspect each one, and nodded that the deck was fine.

I chuckled to myself as I watched the man across from me have his clam chowder bread bowl stripped from him by a crow.

“Shazam!” He yelled. “You’ve seen it! The deck is a winner.”

“Lucy, please bring me the cards.”

Lucy scurried over, the edges of her overalls dragging against the pavement.

“Okay Lucy, I want you to shuffle the deck, just like this.” In a whir, his hands flipped and tossed the cards through the air in a spellbinding menagerie of flourishes.

This part I watched intensely.

The bend of the cards forward or backward can indicate a riffle shuffle, where the order of the deck is maintained despite the appearance of shuffling. However, as I examined the motions, there seemed to be no indications of such movements. A true, genuine shuffle. Then he handed Lucy the cards.

“Just like that, okay?”

Everyone laughed.

Confidently, Lucy slammed the cards together, no doubt bending a few of them. Suddenly, all the cards were on the ground, and Lucy, embarrassed, hastily picked them up.

A true, genuine shuffle.

Everyone laughed.

“Shazam!” He yelled again. “You’ve seen it! A perfectly done job by my friend Lucy here,” he said warmly. Everyone clapped. “Now, Lucy, I want you to pick out ten cards without looking at what they are for me and place them on the ground in any order you choose.”

Cautiously, Lucy glanced at the backside of each card in the deck, taking extra care when examining the one in front of her. Occasionally she plucked one out and placed it on the ground. For all the others, she recycled it into the bottom of the deck.

With her task complete, she gave the remainder of the deck back to Fraz, and crossed her arms.

“Love the attitude, Lucy! Spicy! I like it!” He roared. “Do you want to move any of them?”

She shook her head.

“You sure?”

She nodded.

“Shame . . .” He joked.

Everyone laughed.

“Maybe move one for me. Please?”

After a moment of silence, she shook her head.

“How about this one?” He pointed to the one fourth from the left.

Again, she shook her head.

“How about this one?” He repeated, pointing to the one at the end.

She relented and moved it in between the sixth and seventh cards to the right.

“Thanks, Lucy.” He leaned in again to whisper to her privately. As before, she smiled. “Give it up for Lucy! She’s done a terrific job!” He shouted.

Everyone clapped.

“Now, Lucy. I have a very important job for you. I need you to find the most handsome man in the crowd and bring him up here.”

“He’s already up there!” He whispered into his mic comically.

“Oh thanks, you’re too kind strange person!”

Everyone laughed.

Lucy scanned the crowd and again looked to her mom, who subtly pointed across the crowd. Lucy grabbed him by the arm and pulled him on stage.

“Sir, what is your name?”

“Jacob.”

“Great to meet you, Jacob, I’m Fraz. Do you have a cell phone?”

“Yes.”

“Can you get it out for me?”

The man pulled out his iPhone.

“Shazam! You’ve seen it! The man has a cell phone! In 2016 nonetheless!” Fraz yelled.

Some people laughed.

“Now, I want you to dial the numbers as I repeat them to you. Can you do that for me?”

The man nodded, and Fraz moved over to the cards as a hush fell over the crowd. With his hand extended over the 10 cards, he opened his palm facing downwards.

“Shazam!” He screamed. Yet as he did so, all ten cards flipped over, revealing their faces.

With my black tinted shades still on, I wrote fervently in my journal, my wrist darting back and forth to draw possible diagrams while at the same time finishing my thoughts on Lucy’s role in the performance.

Fraz, whether he knew it or not, was miles ahead of me, and that is a trick I can’t bear to watch.

He read the cards in order from left to right.

“Four. Two. Five.” He exclaimed. “You still with me Jacob?”

Jacob nodded.

“Six. Eight. One. Ninety-seven. Forty.”

The beep of the buttons broke the silence of the captivated audience.

“Please walk around the circle and show everyone that you have dialed as I instructed you to.”

Jacob followed the orders.

“Shazam! You have seen it! Now, I will take the phone.” Fraz plucked it from the man’s hand carefully, exact in his movements so as not to touch any part of the screen or other buttons. “I am now going to hit send.” He stretched out his arm all the way and slowly brought his index finger to the green button, making it clear that no other foolery was at work.

With a thick hush still cloaked over the crowd, I moved in closer.

Suddenly, Miss Jennifer’s purse exploded with confetti, and the resulting bang left my ears ringing.

“You going to get that?” Fraz asked, putting his hand over the phone as if to say, “I’m busy. Please be quiet.”

Hurriedly, Miss Jennifer reached into her bag and pulled out her cellphone, which vibrated vivaciously.

“Hello,” she whispered.

“Shazam baby!” He said seductively.

The crowd erupted into a frenzy of applause and screaming. In the background, the man had forgotten completely about his chowder bowl.

Reluctantly, I put my hands together as well, flabbergasted.

“You’ve seen it!” Fraz roared.

“Listen to me very carefully,” the magician bellowed into the dark abyss. Above me, the faint scent of pork chow mien drifted through the vent of the Chinese eatery. “For I speak softly and I choose my everything about my world very selectively,” he whispered almost inaudibly.

“In choosing this room, I have taken away your light. Tonight, I will heighten your other senses.” He murmured.  “Be mindful and vigilant, for the closer to the light you stand, the greater your shadow becomes. So absorb your shadow. Rely on your other senses to tell you the truth.” He coughed into his elbow. “Change –“ His hand motioned over the first deck, and flicked out the four aces, which he held high in view of the crowd. “Your perspective.”

“The darkness is not without its own sense of truth, its own sense of pertinence, right and wrong, and even malevolence.” He unpacked the second deck. “And as the light may be your guide in these endeavors,” He repeated the motion over the new deck. “So too can the dark.” Four more aces popped out onto the card table, the overhead image of which shone on the projector screen behind him.

“Card forces and deck memorization.” I jotted into my journal. Beside me, the blogger leaned in as close as he could get, gripping the sides of his seat tightly.

“There is only one moment between the two,” he said, now flourishing the cards of the third deck, mixing in the discarded piles of the first two decks. “A moment where regardless in the light or the dark,” The flourishes grew in motion and grandeur. Between elaborate springs, death rolls, Carnahan’s, and Buckeyes, my wrist fell silent to the page, and the magician spread the 148 cards onto the table in a perfectly symmetrical infinity. “You might miss something.”

With the flick his index finger, the cards flipped over, one by one in an almost instantaneous succession, revealing each to be the ace of spades.

My pen fell to the floor.

Everyone clapped wildly.

“So do not blink.”

“Jacob. What do you do?” Fraz asked, pulling the man back to the center of the circle.

“I’m a pastry chef. I own Hilltop Bagels and Pastries.”

“Nice plug.” Fraz spat out slyly.

Everyone laughed.

“Jacob.” Fraz continued, wrapping his arm around Jacob’s shoulder. “How do you feel about learning something new today? Taking a break from the world of fine eclairs,” he asked, adding an almost passable French accent to the final word.

Jacob shrugged.

“It’s going to take a little bravery on your part. You sure you’re up for it?”

Again, Jacob shrugged, chuckling to himself.

“Well then, ladies and gentlemen, today Jacob is going to learn how to swallow a sword.”

Everyone laughed.

“No. Seriously.” Fraz declared. “It’s actually much easier than you think.” Suddenly, he pulled a large curved scimitar from his trunk. “Just watch.”

As quickly as he had grabbed the sword, Fraz jammed the blade down his throat.

Everyone gasped. Miss Jennifer covered Lucy’s eyes.

With the sword still jutting out from between his lips, Fraz pulled out a whiteboard and began to write.

I didn’t take notes at this point. A sword in the throat is nothing noteworthy. It is done by inverting the cutting edge of the blade 90 degrees and finding a proper alignment with the esophagus which puts the back end of the blade at the most forward point of the throat, which, although risky, is not difficult. Other than the gag reflex of course.

“Have you seen Alien?” The whiteboard displayed.

Jacob nodded.

Fraz began to write again.

“Check this out.” It read.

Suddenly, Fraz pulled up his shirt and began to twist and jerk the sword back and forth. In a grotesque and sickening fashion, the blade began to poke through his skin from the inside.

Miss Jennifer turned Lucy away, but couldn’t help but continue glaring.

I drew a question mark in my journal.

Then, as I looked up from my writing, Fraz yanked the sword out from inside of him.

“Shazam! You’ve seen it!”

Everyone clapped, even if it was with a mild sense of revulsion.

“So are you ready Jacob?” Fraz asked, patting him on the back.

Jacob laughed and ran his hand across the back of his neck.

As with Lucy, Franz leaned into Jacob’s ear and whispered inaudibly. And as before, Jacob began to smile. The curves of his lips spread out widely across his face, as if he had just learned the next day’s winning lottery numbers.

In an instant, Jacob’s had changed. Now standing upright, he shook Fraz’s hand and threw his hands up in the air as if to say, “Fuck it. Why not?”

I wrote a forced plant? In my journal, still racking my brain on how everything thus far had culminated in this point.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Fraz hopped onto his trunk. “Please give it up for the bravest pastry chef in Philly, and please buy him out of house and home!”

Everyone clapped.

Then, just as before, Fraz grabbed the sword and jammed it into Jacob’s throat. Jacob, between a multitude of ribald choking noises, managed to walk around the circle, his eyes locked on the sky with the sword still jutting out of his esophagus.

No one clapped just yet, still bound by the violent horror before them.

And after what seemed to be an eternity of intensity, Jacob found the center of the circle and lifted his hands from his sides.

This is art. Gripping. Horrifying. Art.

Suddenly, Fraz grabbed the hilt of the blade and swung it down like a lightning bolt, immediately bringing  Jacob to the pavement.

Everyone screamed as Jacob’s body limply rested on the brick, his body twisting upwards, a snake consuming the scimitar in Fraz’s hand.

Fraz whipped the sword from Jacob’s mouth and wiped it off with his shirt.

“Shazam! You’ve seen it! Our man is a sword swallower!”

Then, unexpectedly, Jacob rose from the ground and merely dusted himself off. In unison, the crowd released its first breath in minutes and then detonated into a madhouse of celebration.

“Give it up for Jacob!” Fraz yelled over them, raising Jacob’s hand in the air as if the championship bell had just been rung. “Don’t forget to buy his pastries, and don’t forget to donate to me so that I can do the same.” Again, he lifted Jacob’s hand into the air in victory.

As I moved closer to introduce myself, I turned around, hearing the faint cries of a whimpering.

Sitting on the park bench in the distance, Miss Jennifer hugged Lucy closely as the young girl bawled in terror, pointing at the hoard of hysteria.

“Tonight, I will show you three miracles – two lies and a truth. It is up to you to decide which is which – I cannot decide that for you. A good magician –“ He said, and began opening a new deck. “will never reveal his trick.” He shuffled it. As usual, I watched the shape and bend of the cards closely. “But a great magician will know how to shock even those who have seen it twice.”

“These are Tarot cards. With them, I shall divine the work of God. But first, I will need an assistant to shuffle them for me, to rearrange my fate.”

Only a few people in the crowd raised their hands. After a brief selection process, the magician pointed to a middle-aged man in the third row and the assistant led him to the stage.

During this portion of the act, while most eyes are on the person coming to the stage, it is important to focus on the magician. The quick misdirection is an easy opportunity to perform a subtle deck swap or pre-load the coming shuffle.

“If you would sir –“ The magician coughed into his elbow. “First a cut for the deck.”

I begin to jot down the requests, the following motions, and add sleight of hand plant? At the end. Deck cuts are rather actually simple to nullify, but it is a lie that everyone accepts. In actuality, all it takes is a quick one-hand shift when moving the cards from one end of the table to the other, as is common in many tricks.

“Next, a scatter.”

In this method of shuffling, the cards are splayed out across the table in a formless pile and gathered back together in a new order. Uncommon in magic, this kind of shuffle is typically the kind of shuffle children do before learning how to properly deal cards and it is also the most genuine form of reordering a deck.

“Then a riffle.”

This, while appearing to the be a genuine randomization, is also easily undone. For example, many card magician’s will use a reverse double Elmsly, the steps of which are as follows.

When bending the cards to perform the riffle, the magician will crimp the corners of one pile up and the other down. In theory, this would create a sequence of up-corner, down-corner, up-corner, down-corner, throughout the deck, and allow a simple break during the next split. After reversing the direction of both piles so that the up and down corners face each other, you can mesh the pile and maintain the deck’s original order. It is a lie that a liar like myself takes as a lie.

“With the Tarot deck now shuffled, I will allow fate to choose the three miracles for you to witness tonight.” Looking at the projector, the crowd watched as he pulled three cards from the 22-card spread.

I wrote down their number with respect to the leftmost card.

6

13. I chuckled at the motif.

18.

In a tarot deck of major arcana with order maintained, these cards would be:

The Lovers. Like most tarot cards, the meaning of this card is far from its face value. As the story goes, The Fool sets out to fulfill his purpose but is stopped in his tracks after his eyes fall onto a beautiful enchantress. As they talk and spend time with one another, he decides to change his path and accompany her, knowing it will also be a fulfilling adventure

The translation of the card, therefore, is less about romance and more about choice. Consequentially, this card is about what is worth giving up to achieve a given path. As there is no choice without sacrifice, without opportunity cost, this card is emblematic of an impossible choice that we must make, even if we are nothing but fools.

Death. A frequently appearing trope in magic, the meaning of this card is also far from face value. In this story, Death approaches the fool as he walks through a fallow field. With an emptiness inside of him, the fool asks death if he has died, and death replies, “Yes, in a way. You have left your old world behind.”

The fool begs for forgiveness, but Death, wise in his age and experience, tells him that there is nothing to forgive. Pointing to the barren field, Death tells him that all must eventually be stripped away for something greater to emerge, and the fool walks away from the encounter with a new understanding of death.

This card, therefore, is less about an end and more about what is to come.

The Moon. One of the more mysterious cards in tarot, The Moon tells a story of the fool as he aimlessly wanders in a land of madness and illusion. Upon encountering a river, he finds a dock with a boat that has no oar and no rudder, and he sees that he has two choices – to trust himself in the boat or continue his journey in the dark. After weighing the options, the fool chooses the boat and begins to float downstream under the moon’s approving gaze. As such, this card is about relinquishing control and allowing oneself to accept the madness of the world.

Then, in a whir of hand motions, the magician revealed the cards he had chosen.

The Lovers.

Death.

The Devil.

I leaned in on the edge of my seat as my curiosity began to mount – two of three is no mistake.

The Devil is perhaps the most intriguing of all tarot cards.

In the story, the fool arrives at the foot of an enormous black mountain ruled by a creature that is half goat and half god.

Across the mountainside, crowds of people have been chained together by their temptations and meander their way through the mountain wilderness. As the fool begins to climb, he feels his own earthly desires rising and yells to the goat that he has conquered these desires and given them up, confident that this is a test where he must prove that greed, sex, power, and the like, do not sway him. The beast, however, tells him to re-examine the chains that bind the people on the mountain.

Here, the fool sees that the chains are loose enough that they could be easily slipped off, and he questions the beast. The beast, seeing the fools confusion, points to the summit of the mountain where a crowd of seven people stands in victory.

The beast then tells the fool that while some choose to be shackled on the mountain by their desires, there are also those who have used the same impulses to climb to the highest heights.

Therefore, this card does not carry a sense of evil or the Judeo-Christian denotations of the devil, but instead suggests a life of honesty where the fool allows himself to give into his temptations in the name of achievement.

“For the first miracle, fate has given me the lovers. A card of choice. A card of sacrifice. A miracle that will require three assistants.”

A few hands shot up throughout the crowd. In the background, the curtain peeled back and revealed a large contraption under a cloak with four different tracks leading out of it in a mess of crosses and zig-zags. The magician paced through the crowd, his steps falling silently on the concrete floor. The smell of Chinese food continued to linger through the vent above me.

In front of each person with their hand up, he inspected the volunteers rigorously. Examining their heads, whispering in their ear privately and waiting for their reaction. He passed through the front row without selecting anyone. Then, one person in the fourth row. Then, one person in the sixth row.

Then, he came to our row, where no hands were raised. I lowered my head to avoid making eye contact, and he passed in front of me. Subtly, I peered upwards, looking for any indication of false-sleeves or pockets in his hoodie.

Nearly at the end of the row, he stopped in his tracks and walked backward until he was in front of the blogger.

Without a word, he leered into the blogger’s eyes and whispered into his ear. I tried to lean in and listen inconspicuously, but still failed to make out a single word.

And with that, he ripped the blogger from his seat and pushed him towards the stage. Fighting at first, the blogger relented and took his place in front of the crowd.

I crossed out the words audience plants from my notebook. Magicians rarely accept reviewers or dispellers on stage, much less force them into it.

“If you would be so kind as to allow my assistant to guide you to your places,” the magician began and pointed to the wall at the end of the tracks. “A brief hand for the brave,” he clapped.

Everyone followed suit.

Two of the volunteers stood at the end of the tracks and allowed themselves to be shackled to the wall filling two of the four available spots. The magician held the blogger near the contraption at the front, making sure he did not look behind him.

“This is a  45-inch power saw,” he yelled, whipping the cloak away. “It is on a set track to meet the wall at one of the ends of the track, but its path may be changed by my friend . . .”

“Teddy,” the blogger mumbled.

“As you can see, the tracks of the machine weave together, leaving hundreds of permutations for Teddy to choose from, but I, once shackled, will hypnotize him into making the correct series of choices . . . I hope.”

Everyone laughed nervously.

“I really don’t feel comfortable –“ Teddy said, pulling the magician aside.

“All will be well. You may choose to alter the path of the blade, or you may allow it to continue on whatever path it has already chosen. Simply pull the lever right, left, forward, or backward, or allow it to be as fate has written.”

Then the magician took his place on the wall and the assistant shackled his hands above him to match the other two volunteers, one of which struggled profusely to escape after hearing the nature the trick.

I leaned in closely, my hand pressed firmly against the pages of my journal.

“Teddy. I will need you to make four choices as the blade moves toward the wall, but be wary, for choosing not to choose is a choice unto itself.”

Suddenly, the saw powered up and the roar of the engine crashed deafeningly against my ear drums.

“Let it begin!” The magician shouted, barely audible over the spinning blade.

The machine took off on the tracks, moving much faster than I had anticipated.

“Teddy! Choose!” The magician screamed.

“I can’t – I don’t want to hurt anyone!” Teddy cried, turning around to face his potential victims, his hand shaking on the lever.

“Your choice has been made. Again Teddy! Choose!”

“I can’t!” Teddy shrieked again.

The person on the far right adjacent to the empty spot howled, swinging his hands violently to get out of the shackles.

I leaned in even closer.

“Your choice has been made. Again Teddy! Choose!” The magician continued.

Teddy slammed the lever to the left and the machine shifted to the track on the right, heading for the woman beside the magician. Tears streamed from her eyes as I watched, completely entranced.

“Again Teddy! Choose!” The magician yelled a fourth time.

Teddy ripped the lever towards the crowd, and the machine again changed course, this time heading for the magician.

On the far right, the man exhaled deeply as the blade continued away from him.

“Good Teddy!” The magician bellowed.

In an instant, the blade tore into the waist of the magician, ripping away his flesh. Blood spurted all over the woman next to him, and his body hung lifelessly from the shackles. A mouthful of blood emptied itself onto the floor as his legs hit the ground heavily like the dropping of a dumbbell, and as I glanced at my notebook I realized I hadn’t written a thing.

At the front, Teddy dropped to his knees and began to bawl uncontrollably.

Finally, the machine stopped as the saw stripped away the last of its metal as it continued to strike the concrete wall.

In the silence, nobody clapped.

Suddenly, the magician coughed into his elbow and peeled himself off the wall. His torso dropped to meet the shredded remains of his legs.

Propping himself up on two arms,  he crawled to his legs and merged them with the bloodied mess of his torso.

Then, after moments of horrific stillness, he stood up to face the crowd.

“A good choice by my friend, Teddy.”

Instantaneously, the crowd jumped to its feet and cheered electrically. Like the bolts of a lightning storm, their sounds crashed mightily and their hands streaked across the ceiling with celebratory glee.

My mouth still hung open as I reclined in my chair, completely overwhelmed with disbelief.

In the background, the magician’s assistant unshackled the two volunteers and directed them back to their seats.

After the applause began to die down, Teddy took a quick bow and began to sneak back to his chair. However, the magician’s arm lashed out and grabbed Teddy tightly before he could take more than two steps.

Terror seized him as the magician latched on, his fingers suffocating Teddy’s arm like a noose. What came across as a moment of shock on his face rapidly disintegrated into fear – the same fear the woman had shown just moments before.

“Teddy,” The magician announced to the crowd, “will also be serving as the volunteer for my next miracle.”

On stage, the blogger forced a smile through his teeth like a disappointed child on Christmas.

“And as fate would have it, the cards have chosen the miracle of death.” Through the ski mask, a wretched grin formed across his lips and the corners of his mouth wrinkled stiffly, tickling his cheek bones with delight.

“Rest assured, you will see no harm come to Teddy.” He announced and then coughed into his elbow.

Again, a nervous hush fell over the crowd.

The magician’s assistant shoved Teddy into the chair on stage as the magician continued.

“For as the fool approached death in the barren field and begged forgiveness, death said, ‘Nay. Be not forgiven. Be reborn. See the soil –“ the magician bellowed. With his left hand, he began loading the six-shot silver pistol.

Blanks?  I jotted in my journal.

“- see that it is fresh for the new year. See the sun as it sets –“ He spun the cartridge. “see that it closes its eyes before the new day.”

He coughed into his elbow. “See this hand –“ He said as he wrapped his palm over the barrel of the gun and pulled the trigger.

The blast pierced through my skull like an audible lobotomy, splitting apart the innards of my ear drum.

Everyone flinched.

“- see that it opens once more.” He opened his palm, dropping the bullet to the floor where it bounced thunderously into the front row.

“Teddy. You will experience the miracle of death.” He coughed again and handed Teddy the pistol. “After all, one bullet is a lifetime supply.”

As if he hadn’t even thought twice about it, Teddy pulled back the hammer and placed it against his forehead.

In the instant before the gunshot shook the room, I locked eyes with the blogger and his expressionless face stoically relinquished all muscle tension, as blank as if he had been dead for a thousand years.

Then Teddy pulled the trigger.

Had I blinked, I would have missed the spectacular flash of light from the barrel of the gun as it jettisoned the lead projectile into his brain.

No sooner than he had squeezed the trigger, the backside of Teddy’s head exploded in a mess of bloodied shrapnel which painted itself brilliantly against the concrete, decorating the vomit patch with a scintillating hue of crimson.

As Teddy’s head sunk into his chest cavity, I couldn’t help but stare at the rose he had painted, one that slowly dripped from the wall, each droplet carving its own path down the dimly lit façade.

Again, the crowd stared on in silence.

“And for the last miracle, I give you the devil.” The magician whispered. “As the fool allowed himself to be tempted and shackled before climbing to the peak of the mountain, so shall you.” He coughed into his shoulder.

“For the devil knew that even those who had seen the shackles would be willing to wear them until the end of time, if only for a chance to fulfill the illusion that they had reached the peak.”

He coughed into his elbow.

“See Teddy rise and climb forward up the mountain.”

Suddenly, as if a wave of exhaustion had spawned over the crowd, the heads of the audience members dropped into their chests, fast asleep. One by one, each of the people fell into an unwavering slumber until only I could see the magician on stage – Teddy still beside him in a pool of his own blood.

And as their heads rested silently into the blackness of the basement, the scent of Chinese food still lingering from above, I closed my journal.

On stage, the magician bowed his head to the crowd who sat peacefully asleep in their chairs with the knowledge that Teddy had emerged from death unscathed,  and as the spotlight dimmed, he looked up, only for a brief moment, and stared directly into my eyes. This is liars recognizing themselves.

“Shazam,” he whispered softly, speaking only to me. The spotlight died.

The miracle of the lovers. An impossible choice. The pig next to the popcorn machine. A cut. A lie.

The miracle of death. A miracle that Lucy had seen before in the white line on her mother’s ring finger. An illusion I had seen before in the sword stuffed down Jacob’s throat. A trick that will shock even those who have seen it before. The end before what is to come. A lifetime supply. A scatter. The truth.

And finally, the miracle of the devil. A shackling of the people on the mountain. A riffle. A lie about relinquishing our control of the world.

In the frigid concrete void, still at a loss for words, I stood up and began to clap. A standing ovation for the greatest magic trick I have ever seen.

This is art. Gripping. Horrifying. Art.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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