I don’t respond to Amy’s provocation. My wife, seltzer-sipping prude that she is, loves to nag me whenever I enjoy a libation. It’s an old argument, one of many in her go-to handbag of attention grabbers. I won’t take the bait, and that isn’t in any way related to the fact that in this particular case, she’s right.
“How much longer do we need to suffer here? God, I hate reunions.” Good, she’s changed tactics. We’re on the same team again. Men, take note: You’ll win a surprising number of arguments simply by keeping your mouth shut.
“I’m not suffering, you’re suffering,” I point out eventually. “I’m having the time of my life.”
“Sure, you must be loving every minute. That’s why you’re drunk as a skunk.”
“I’m drunk, my dear, because I’m trying to look cooler than I did back in high school.”
“Wait, you weren’t cool in high school? I could have sworn you were in both Magic Club and Chess Club.”
“That sounds suspiciously like sarcasm, my dear.”
“Sounds like you are slurring your words, my love.”
“Touché. Twenty minutes?”
“Fine. I’m going to find the ladies’ room.” Amy strolls off, placated for the moment. I finish my whiskey sour and head to the open bar for another.
“Marc the Magnificent!” The voice comes from just over my shoulder, and I recognize it immediately. I wait until the bartender hands me my drink--priorities--then turn around. I’m immediately enveloped in a bear hug so strong I almost drop my drink.
“The Phenomenal Phil,” I say with a grin once he lets me go and I can breathe again. “You haven’t aged a day.”
“You have, Marc. Jesus, you look like an old man!”
“So do you, asshole. I was just being nice.”
“I can’t believe it’s been twenty-five years.”
“Has it? I thought this was only our twentieth reunion.”
“Ha, nice try. Still with Amy?”
“I am. She’s here, somewhere. How about you? Still with Gina?”
“Nah, we broke up right after high school. Met a nice girl in college, though. Lisa’s her name. We’ve been married seventeen years now, two beautiful kids.”
“That’s great to hear.” The crowd is pressing in behind us, so we pause the conversation to move away from the bar to a less crowded spot. I take the opportunity to sip my drink and try to come up with more questions for someone I barely know anymore. Reunions really are awkward. Maybe Amy is right; maybe that’s why I’m drunk.
Why is she always right?
“Do you still do magic?” Phil asks. Of course; what an obvious question. Why didn’t I think of that?
“Nah. I haven’t touched a deck of cards since high school. Except to play Texas Hold ‘Em once in a while.”
“Gee, that’s too bad. You were great with that sleight of hand stuff. I still don’t understand how you pulled off some of those tricks. You were doing stuff like that Shin Lim guy before America’s Got Talent even went on the air.”
“If you say so,” I laugh.
“Why’d you give it up?”
“Just sort of fizzled out, you know? Too much to do, too little time.”
“Yeah, I hear you.”
I take a healthy sip of whiskey sour to wash away the taste of my lie. I know exactly why I gave up magic. And when. It was right after that talent show, senior year.
Phil is looking at me expectantly. Oh right, we were talking.
“How about you? Still do magic?” Nailed it.
“I’ve been known to work a kid’s party or two,” he says with a wink. I smile, and he smiles back. Then, inexplicably, his smile fades.
He drops his drink.
The room has gone strangely silent. Everyone is staring, but not at Phil and the shattered glass at his feet. I follow the gazes, and nothing really clicks until I hear the whispers.
“It’s that kid.”
“Sammy something-or-other, wasn’t it?”
“Holy shit. It’s Sammy the Sorcerer.”
That last one does the trick, no pun intended. I can see now what has everyone’s attention. A man stands silhouetted in the doorway to the convention hall. We can’t see his face, but we can see his cape and magician’s hat just fine. It’s a kid’s set, and it doesn’t fit him at all, but he wears it just the same.
He wanders into the room, head down, avoiding eye contact. The crowd parts in front of him, pushed aside as if by magnetic repulsion, leaving him a clear path directly to the bar. When’s the last time any of us have seen Sammy?
When’s the last time anyone has seen Sammy?
“Shirley Temple,” he requests in a clear but quiet voice. The bartender blinks, then scrambles to fulfill the request as the man settles down onto a stool.
The bartender hands Sammy his drink, and Sammy takes a big gulp, slurping loudly. No one else moves a muscle. Eventually he sets the drink down and wipes his mouth on his sleeve. His shoulders slump, and he mutters to himself for a moment. Finally he sighs, places his hands on the counter, and turns away from the bar. He forces his eyes up from the floor.
His eyes slowly scan the faces of the Class of ’94. Now it is our turn to stare at the floor and avoid eye contact. He searches methodically from right to left, processing and dismissing each face in turn.
Until his gaze settles on me.
I want to look away. Hell, I want to make for the door like half of my classmates are already doing. But I can’t break free. Sammy’s gaze is heavy, so heavy. It weighs a million pounds, laden with shyness and embarrassment and anger.
So much power. An endless well, a bulging meniscus that threatens to burn a hole through my very soul if I maintain eye contact for much longer. A terrifying amount of power, but I can’t look away.
Sammy abruptly severs the connection, turning back to the bar and his non-alcoholic drink. I gasp suddenly, my lungs filling with much-needed air. Have I been holding my breath this whole time? My heart is racing; my palms are sweaty. I wipe my hands on my pants, then turn to whisper to Phil.
But Phil isn’t there.
He’s gone, long gone, slinking toward the exit with the rest of the cowards. Strangely, no one actually leaves, though the doors are propped wide open. A room full of rubberneckers, acutely aware of the danger but too engrossed in the drama to look away. Virtual prisoners of the legend of Sammy the Sorcerer, who once upon a time exploded a rabbit to try and win a talent show. An image appears briefly in my mind, quite against my will: Mrs. Banks at the judges’ table, white blouse covered with blood, trying to clean spatter from her glasses with shaking hands. Mr. Jennings, seated to her right, jumping angrily to his feet. Sammy shouting back over screams of horror that the trick isn’t finished yet, there’s more, everybody sit down, sit down goddamnit! Then the lights go out, and...
A cough from one of my classmates pulls me back to the present moment, and I’m grateful. The memory is disturbing.
The bartender stands there like a deer in headlights, not understanding what’s happening but acutely aware that it isn’t good. I catch his eye and nod toward the herd near the door. He doesn’t run, exactly, but I’ll be damned if I’ve ever seen anyone walk faster.
I chug the rest of my drink, then saunter over to the bar and take a seat a few feet away from Sammy. He stinks, even from this distance. He reeks of body odor and chemicals and smoke. It is a familiar smell, a smell that didn’t win him any favors back in school. He stinks, and his hair is disheveled, and his shirt--not kid’s-sized like his magic cape, adult-sized, a Slayer t-shirt adorned with skulls and blood--is covered in stains and wrinkled terribly.
“You made that deuce of clubs disappear right out of Mr. Krumsky’s fingers,” he says eventually.
“I did,” I agree with a frown. I did do that.
I wait for Sammy to say more but he goes back to his Shirley Temple and silence reigns. Good talk. For some people, this might be seen as a deliberate ploy, a power play to make me feel uncomfortable. But Sammy doesn’t need ploys to make people uncomfortable. This is just his natural cadence, his strange rhythm of conversation, and I know better than to prod him.
“Surprised to see me?” he asks eventually.
Then he goes off the rails.
“At first I figured I was dreaming. Lost my mind or something, you know? First I’m on the stage, then I’m lost in darkness. But no matter how many times I blinked my eyes, pinched myself, it didn’t change. So then I thought maybe I’d fallen through the stage, into a basement or something. I felt around for a staircase, a door, a wall. Never found any of those things. Without walls there was no way to do a systematic search. At first I tried to walk in straight lines, but eventually I resigned myself to random wandering.”
He gets up and begins to pace, almost as if he’s acting out said wandering.
“Vast, and dark. If there was a ceiling, I couldn’t see it. But not empty. No, not empty. The scuttling noises terrified me at first, but when I got hungry enough I started following the sounds rather than fleeing from them. They were damn hard to catch in the dark.”
Sammy stops pacing and turns toward me.
“Rabbits, Marc. There were rabbits everywhere in that place. Ever eat raw rabbit, Marc?”
“Sammy...what in God’s name are you talking about?”
“Didn’t think so,” he continues. “Most people haven’t. That’s pretty much all I ate down there, Marc. Raw rabbit, like I was some kind of wild animal. Occasionally I came across a frog, or a bird. But mostly rabbit, washed down by whatever condensation I managed to lick from the floor.”
“A strange ecosystem to be sure. At first I couldn’t for the life of me understand what sort of hell I was in, even though I found a lot of clues as I wandered. Scarves. Ropes. Money. Watches and cell phones--I treasured those as temporary light sources. Rings. Playing cards. Plastic wands...”
“Props from magic tricks,” I blurt out as I suddenly realize the connection.
Am I really having this conversation?
“Exactly, Marc. Exactly! Still, it took me a while before everything clicked. That place I was in was obviously some sort of magical void. A dimension where illusionists hide--and sometimes lose--things. And that got me thinking. How had I gotten there, exactly? Was it possible somebody sent me there on purpose?”
He pauses again, and I’m glad. I’m not sure how much longer I can listen to Sammy’s ramblings. A magical void full of rabbits? Come on. We all know he ran away during the brief power outage he accidentally caused with his ill-advised rabbit-bomb. No one who’s met Sammy would deny his inexplicable magical gifts, but the man talking to me tonight is clearly delusional. He needs help, and I need to tell him that.
The chandelier swings back and forth, clinking and tinkling. I change my mind and decide to keep my thoughts to myself.
“I wandered, and survived, and thought. I had suspicions, but figured I’d never be able to prove anything. Then, one day, I found this.”
Sammy pulls something from his pocket and hands it to me. It’s a playing card. A Bicycle, I can tell that immediately from the popular pattern on the back. It’s old and tattered. And utterly familiar. I flip it over just to be sure, but of course I know what I’m going to see.
Deuce of clubs.
My hand is shaking and I can’t make it stop. Not just any deuce of clubs; my deuce of clubs, from the talent show, complete with Mr. Krumsky’s signature.
And I haven’t seen it since it disappeared from Mr. Krumsky’s fingers.
As I try to process what I’m seeing, I sense the atmosphere around me changing. The air feels heavier, somehow. And Sammy is staring at me. I can feel his gaze on my forehead, burning like a beam of acid. I don’t dare look him in the eye right now; it would be like staring directly into the sun.
“Where did you find that?” I risk in a quiet voice.
A bottle of Grey Goose explodes behind the bar, soaking us in alcohol. I cringe; Sammy doesn’t. Everyone else shrieks and presses even further against the walls. But no one leaves.
“You almost got away with it,” says Sammy. “I should have known. You were always jealous of my talent. I never paid attention because I thought you were harmless with your silly little card tricks. You slow-played me, and I fell for it. But you messed up, didn’t you, Marc? You didn’t think I’d ever find that card in the darkness. Maybe you thought I’d die first. Or maybe you knew I’d find it and simply didn’t care because you figured I’d never get out. That’s probably closer to the truth, isn’t it? Such arrogance.” Sammy shakes his head.
“Sammy, I don’t know what you think I did to you,” I say frantically. “But I don’t know how to do anything like that. My magic was fake, Sammy! Make-believe. Misdirection and trickery. I have no idea how that card disappeared, it wasn’t even part of the trick!” And that’s the honest truth; when that card had disappeared, I’d been as shocked as anyone.
The chandelier crashes to the floor, not far from where Phil and I had been standing earlier.
Most magic is a sham, my own included.
But Sammy’s sure isn’t.
Until tonight, we’d all figured he’d simply jammed a bunch of firecrackers up that rabbit’s ass all those years ago.
Yeah. Pretty sure we were wrong about that.
“You are a terrible liar,” he snarls. He points at the deuce in my hand and shouts, “That’s all the proof I need! You sent me to the void, just like you sent that card! Except unlike that card, I have a brain! I realized that if there was a way into that place, there had to be a way out. And I found it. Quite by chance I found it, in the midst of a temper tantrum after losing a rabbit I’d been tracking for hours. Explosion here, explosion there, you know the drill! I happened to have a light source with me on this occasion, a nice little iPhone X with maybe fifteen percent battery remaining. I switched on the phone’s flashlight and looked around to see if maybe I’d hit the rabbit or one of its buddies by chance. I hadn’t, but I found that I’d carved some nice six-inch gouges out of the floor. After that it was just a matter of time, patience, and brute force. It took me months to tunnel out of there. Like a prisoner digging through a wall with a spoon. Eventually I broke through. I landed hard, right there on the stage in the high school, where it all began. In a way, I wish we were there now. Wouldn’t that be a fitting place to end this? But this place will do. It’s taken me all these years to work up the nerve. Time to finally set things right.”
Sammy turns away from me. I can sense my classmates squishing themselves against the wall, trying to avoid Sammy’s gaze as he addresses them.
“You only got to see half of my trick at that talent show before Marc sent me into the void. You only got to see the ugly part. The second half of the trick was going to be beautiful. I was going to bring that rabbit back to life.”
The crowd gasps. If it were anyone else, they’d probably laugh.
No one is laughing at Sammy the Sorcerer tonight.
“That’s right. I can do that. That poor rabbit was supposed to get a second chance, a triumphant return, but no one got to see that part. Well, tonight I’m going to perform my trick the way it was meant to be performed, from start to finish, with the exception of one minor detail.”
He turns and fixes me with nastiest sneer I’ve ever seen.
“I forgot to bring a rabbit.”
The sharp pain in my head strikes suddenly, without warning, and is ten times worse than any migraine I’ve ever suffered. It feels like my head is being squeezed in a vise. Or maybe it feels like it is being ripped apart, it hurts so bad I can’t rightly tell. I drop to my knees, holding my head with both hands, trying to keep it in place. In that moment, I’m aware of only two things in the whole world aside from the pain. The first is that my nose is bleeding, gushing down my chin and all over the place. The second is that someone stands silhouetted in the doorway to the convention hall.
The lights flicker and go out.
That’s it, then. I’m dead. Except I can still feel the hard floor beneath my knees, and I can hear people murmuring and shuffling around. Also my head no longer hurts.
The lights come back on, and I stare up at the person standing beside me.
That person is Amy, my wife. Sammy is nowhere to be seen. She helps me to my feet, and I wipe awkwardly at the bit of blood that still dangles from the tip of my nose.
The class of ’94 watches in silence for a few seconds.
Then the room erupts in applause.
“Did you see that?” someone shouts.
“How did they do that?”
“Where did he go?”
Pete Quisenberry, our old class president and self-appointed social coordinator, walks forward with a microphone and gestures for silence.
“Wow! What an unexpected surprise! A terrific impromptu performance! Let’s give it up for the Magic Club!”
The crowd cheers. Phil comes running from some corner of the room and takes a bow. Amy rolls her eyes and follows suit. I just stand there hoping my head doesn’t fall off my body.
“Where’s Sammy? Sammy, come take a bow with your club-mates! I can’t wait to hear where you’ve been all this time, and how you guys managed to pull this off!”
“He won’t be back tonight. It would ruin the trick,” says Amy with a wink.
“I read you loud and clear, Amazing Amy! We certainly wouldn’t want that. Thanks again, and enjoy the rest of the evening!”
The crowd applauds politely, and just like that the spell is broken. People begin to move around the room freely, and discussion begins again. I watch the bartender move cautiously back to his position behind the bar. He begins to clean up the broken glass and Grey Goose spatter as a few other workers enter the room to clear away the remains of the chandelier.
“I’m ready to leave now,” I say to Amy without turning to look at her. She nods and takes my hand.
“You guys should have let me in on that trick!” Phil hisses as Amy leads me toward the door.
We don’t talk about it. We should, but we don’t.
Back in high school, her shtick was mentalist stuff. I suppose it would have been a little too obvious if she’d performed disappearance tricks. No, she kept that power all to herself, with a very few discrete exceptions. Like in the case of a certain deuce of clubs. And a certain Sorcerer.
Amy knew. Somehow, she’d always known. She’d noticed at the talent show when Sammy’s gaze had fallen on Mr. Jennings during the chaos. She’d noticed when Mr. Jennings’ nose had started bleeding...
And then she’d sent Sammy away before it got any worse.
Maybe I’d sleep better if I knew I wasn’t apt to wake up in total darkness, surrounded by rabbits. I walk on eggshells, careful not to piss her off now that I know what she can do.
Sometimes, as I drift off to sleep, I hear things. Loud bangs. Doctors call it “exploding head syndrome,” which is perhaps a bit more accurate in my case than they understand. They tell me not to worry about it, that it is simply a random firing of neurons in my brain, very common.
Except every time I experience that sensation, I picture an explosion. A small explosion of rock, somewhere in the darkness...
I lie awake wondering about his outrageous claim. Can he truly reanimate exploded flesh?
I doubt I’ll ever find out.
Next time we see him--and I have no doubt that we’ll see him again--I can’t imagine he’ll be in a mood to exercise that particular talent after blasting us to smithereens.