As I watch children scurry by my iron gate, I recall how I started doing the same thing when I was their age, nine, maybe ten, hurrying past this same house, pumped full of Halloween sugar, ready to jump out of my skin at any unexpected sight or sound.
At thirteen I summoned up the courage to open the creaking gate – rusty even back then – and knocked on the door, my pals cowering in the shadows. Their loss. The old crone who drew it open seemed pleased to see a brave young fellow coming to call. She put out her hand and, before I could grasp it, a dove fluttered from her gnarled palm. I stumbled backward as the bird flew up the stairwell, then perched on the banister.
“That was my trick. Now would you like a treat?” she asked, her scratchy voice sounding seldom-used. “Speak up, boy. Cat got your tongue?” And with that she pulled a tiny coal black kitten from inside her shirt and waved it in my face.
I laughed, finally able to speak. “How did you do that, ma’am?”
“Oh, birds and cats coexist quite well if you start them young. They cuddle up in the warmth of my bosom and nod off until my voice awakens them.”
“No, I mean really, how did you train them to do that. Are you a magician?”
“Of sorts,” she replied. “What’s your name, sonny?”
“It’s Theodore, ma’am. But everyone calls me Theo.”
“Well Theo, you can stop calling me ma’am. To my friends I’m just Willa.”
That simple exchange led to a transfer of life-long skills from her, Wilhelmina, Mistress of Illusions, to me, Theo, Keeper of Secrets. An unusual friendship developed between us as well. Unusual because I was barely in my teens and she was, well, many times my age. Maybe because we had different interests from most folks, like how to fool people, distract them from what was really going on while leading them astray toward their unimaginative expectations, and knowing how to pull off our next move before anyone wondered what just happened.
I drifted away from my few self-absorbed friends and family members and hung out at Willa’s shabby mansion where she taught me everything she knew about magic. “Where did you learn all this?” I asked, while she put out a fire she’d accidentally started inside a pot on the stove, instead of beneath it.
“Clumsy me,” she said. “Age is misdirecting my intentions. Anyway, your question was about – oh yes, I remember now – my education. I come from a long line of special mentors, none of which you’ve heard of, I’m sure. They don’t teach that kind of history in school.”
I started out performing at children’s parties. Graduated to business meetings. Took my shows to small theaters and comedy clubs. But I always made it home for Halloween where Willa and I raised our glasses “To Illusions”.
She passed away on one such night a decade ago and left me this house.
Years passed, and it became harder and harder to entertain people. Most folks carried all the magic they needed in their pockets: games, graphics, holograms, virtual reality, intelligent bots. I couldn’t make a living competing with all that. So, I planned to join them by luring in a protégé who would teach me a thing or two about how to generate this new form of magic.
I left my gate open that Halloween. Put up a sign that read “NERDS NEEDED”. Blared sounds of a thunderstorm and flashed lights from the turrets. The illusion drew a middling crowd, but none had the courage to move past the gate… until Eve walked up and rang the bell. She looked nerdy enough, dressed like a thrift store mannequin with a threadbare hoodie and a dark pencil thin skirt that grazed the tops of her Doc Martens.
“I’m scared. I need someone to take me in, help me disappear,” she said, looking over her shoulder.
I took her arm and pulled her inside. Bolted the door. She was trembling from fear, but not of me. “Many have disappeared in here,” I said, trying to sound playfully Halloweenish, to make her laugh and calm her down. It didn’t seem to work. “How can I help you?”
“I’ll get right to the point. I’ve been made to reproduce humans, and…”
“Wait. What’s so special… uh, so frightening about that?”
“I’m an alpha model SV Droid. One of many being sold up and down the Valley. Very hush-hush, very lucrative. They plant eggs inside my pouch,” Eve said, absently brushing her hand against her flat stomach. “Then a few of them take turns fertilizing the eggs, and they sequester me in their lab-hut until I reproduce again.”
“Who are ‘they’?”
She scowled at my dismissive tone. “You don’t believe me!” She immodestly hiked her hoodie up a few inches and pulled the pencil skirt down below where her navel should have been. She did indeed have a pouch, like a marsupial. “THEY are Silicon Valley science nerds who think they’re magicians. They’ve groomed me. I know lots of their secrets. They scare the sand out of me.”
She was right. I didn’t totally believe her, beyond the obvious fact of her droidness. I took her in anyway, and the student taught the teacher VR magic, how to transfer my repertoire to the new medium. I didn’t lock her up. She was free to come and go, and she chose to stay.
We became a couple of sorts. But I couldn’t help myself. I wound up fertilizing eggs she secured while disguised as a domestic worker in the Valley. She put herself in danger for me in exchange for upgrading my skills in this, her new safe haven. And I was back in the game. My fame rose to a new level… online of course, like magic. I had millions of followers. Perhaps you were one of them.
Now, years later, I go to the window and look again at the costumed children going by clutching their bags of treats. I wonder how many of them are real. Are mine. I don’t want to know.
Patricia Ann Bowen is the author of a medical time travel trilogy about a cure for Alzheimer’s, and Unintended Consequences, a collection of short stories about people in challenging circumstances. Her stories have appeared in the anthologies: Table for Two, Stories of Southern Humor and Southern Crime, and Forbidden Library, and most recently in Mystery Tribune, Chamber Magazine, and Commuterlit.com. She has taught short story writing and currently leads a critique group of short story writers for the Atlanta Writer’s Club. You can connect with her at www.patriciabowen.com.