Over the last couple weeks I’ve been entering contests. Will I win any of them? I don’t know. But I’m playing the law of averages. I submitted my book for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, the Black Lawrence Press Big Moose Prize, and the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award for the Novel; as well as a short story contest. It is the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge and I had eight days to write a story on a prompt. It had to have a magician, a surprise party and be in the genre of a ghost story. So here it is:
She’d stayed for an extra drink at Grandma’s, even though it would make her late for Marshall.
And it had.
That’s why she was hurrying, and speeding, when the ice slush along the berm of Carpenters Corners’ curves grabbed onto her wheels and pulled her Honda, off the road and over, into the trees below, where the nose of her car would bend, then fold and tear around a thick old oak.
x x x
She was home on break and had seen him that morning, first time in eight months, at the store.
Her mother had needed flour and eggs, and Abigail had found Marshall in the canned goods, stocking shelves.
She had known him since Bible school. His hair always as yellow and his eyes always as blue as the crayons of that time. He was cute even then, and cute enough to give up her black and white cookies, lie, say she didn’t like them, then slide them on her napkin to him.
She said hi to him in the store. She’d wedged her hands into her pants pockets and watched his.
He was kneeling, moving cans from the pallets at his feet to the shelves above. He asked her about her classes, because she’d gone off to college and he wouldn’t for another half a year. She wanted to say, but didn’t, that it’s always dark there, at school. There’s no people, just books.
She lied, said classes were good, and noticed there weren’t more cans on the shelf where it had seemed he’d been placing them. There were fewer and fewer with each swipe. He was taking them.
She asked, “Where they all going?”
He blushed and flexed his fingers toward her, gave an aw-shucks shrug, said, “Magic.”
They had drifted apart before high school. She had heard he had taken up magic, that he would troll the halls, work up one side of lockers, then the other, with coin tricks, pulling flowers from places.
So Abigail waited by her locker until the day he came to her and held his deck of cards out.
She said, “Magic, huh?”
And he said, “David Copperfield’s with Claudia Schiffer, you know.”
“So you think girls are going to go for that,” she said, and his eyes stayed down at his cards and he said, “you tell me.”
He held them out again and she pulled one out, cupped her hand around it, playing along, and brought the eight of diamonds toward her eyes. She read and replaced it, and he looked deep into her, his eyes moving like he was sorting through a stack of magazines. He looked close enough, it seemed, to read each of the red squares in there, and said, “Eight of Diamonds.” She was surprised for a moment, that he had done it, and thought more. She wondered, while he was sifting through, what else had he read inside of her. What kinds of secrets had she left lying about.
With customers pushing past them, she asked if he wanted to come over. She was having a Christmas party, she joked. Just the two of them and a jug of wine. She said, “I could tell you what college is really like.” He said he wanted to, but couldn’t. He was a having a party. And she laughed as if he was joking, too. He said it was at the abandoned barn behind his parents’ house. A surprise party. For Ashley Suntheim.
Abigail pulled her eyebrows together and shook her head. She didn’t understand. He had gone into magic to impress girls, but nobody had explained to him that it wouldn’t. That it was a liability. And she didn’t mind. He could keep at it, conquer the hardest parts, learn how to make something disappear, and some Christmas she would come home from school with scars on her hands and cold inside, and by magic, he’d still be there.
He invited her though. Said she had to come. Said he was going to do a big trick. Biggest ever. He was going to disappear.
And maybe what was most confusing was that Ashley was a pretty girl. Worked too hard at it, maybe. Was 17 and dyed her hair. Tried to make it some new and perfect color between blond and brunette.
But still she was more beautiful than any girl Abigail assumed Marshall would have.
He’d have me, she thought, and that’s where the bar was supposed to be.
x x x
Abigail had tried at school. Had found a boy in her Beat literature class who wore a lot of black and perpetually carried Kerouac’s “Desolation Angels” like it held his arm to his body. And even though she knew it was backwards, she wrote him poems and used words like “midnights” and “crows” to try to explain to him the way she understood his beauty.
And eventually he bought them tickets to a show downtown. A little known guy that they both had known that wore black hoodies and strummed an acoustic guitar on a stool and moaned.
He told her to take the bus downtown, to meet him there. And she took an empty liter pop bottle and filled it with wine and stood outside with no ticket. When it was dark, when the low registers of the man moaning on stage started seeping through the walls, she took the bus back home, got another bottle of red, and stumbled back out into the night. To his apartment, under his window, calling his name over the music and female voice that vibrated through the windows. She called his name and stumbled back; and called again and stumbled back, stumbled back and fell back onto her bottle. The glass made lightning bolt lacerations down her fingers and into her hands. She went home to wash the blood away, and after she’d bloodied their door, its knob, and bloodied her own bed, her roommate drove her to the ER and the doctors sewed her up.
The roommate, and of course the boy, hadn’t looked at her since. It seemed like no one had.
x x x
Abigail stared at the burned out husk of her car. It looked as light as burnt newspaper, and seemed to flutter with the wind. She held her arms out and wondered if it’d move her too.
It didn’t. She looked to the seat where her body had been and still should have been. She wondered how long it’d been since she was gone, since her seat was empty, and wondered if Marshall, too, had already done his trick and disappeared.
She’d brought the jug wine for him. Because before, or after, his party, his magic, his Ashley, she hoped, she could use it. And if he wouldn’t admit what he felt for her, they would drink and she would convince him.
The jug was in the backseat. The door was likely sealed shut by the heat, crushed closed by the crash, but she didn’t even pull on it, just pushed her arm through, to the jug. It was wedged under and somehow protected by the seat, just its glass discolored, and she maneuvered it up and out the broken window.
She held the jug to her belly and wondered if he’d be able to see her and hear her. And as she thought of the answer, she cried for the first time. To mourn herself. To mourn being alone in the world. To mourn soon losing Marshall, too. But he was just on the other side of the trees and she hurried through them. She balled her fists around the jug and stomped as she walked, hoping to make the sound of feet through ice or snapping twigs, the sounds of life, instead of just being a whisper through the woods.
Through the other side, she found the barn, rough and old and faded. She’d heard and he had told her before, that’s where he worked on the tricks and created his magic. With her own kind of magic, she could have walked through the back wall, but hoped instead to walk around, pull open the front door, a huge hatch on wheels. She hoped he’d turn toward the sound and see her. And tell her, that they should forget all of this, the trick, the party, and just go to the woods, the two of them, hide from the people that would come and drink her wine.
But she set the jug just outside, pushed the door so it rattled, stood in the opening, and he looked, but didn’t see her.
He went back to what he was doing, up on a raised platform, where, when it was a farm, they’d stack round bales, now his stage. It was some kind of rehearsal, some choreography. He waved his arms, a cape in his hands, and stomped out a rhythm. She walked toward him and he waved the cape like a bullfighter in front of himself, then was gone, under it.
She waited for a moment and he climbed out from behind his stage and back up on it and did the dance again. And this time, as he stomped, she walked toward the stage, and through it, into the dark compartment below and waited. His stomps filled the cavern, and then he came, dropped down through, then sat a moment to breathe.
She stared at him, the gaps in the boards of the stage making yellow lines across his face. She thought of touching him. She held her hand out to do it, but didn’t.
“Marshall,” she said, hoping he’d hear instead.
But his eyes were closed, working over the trick.
And she said, “Marshall,” louder. And he didn’t hear. And she yelled again and punched the wood belly of the stage. It gave off a hollow boom and he opened his eyes and skittered back, pushing himself by his hands.
Alone again, she shook her head. She didn’t know how to do this without scaring him.
The front door rattled again, and it was followed by the muffled voices of people coming in.
Marshall crawled around, out of sight, and she walked out the stage’s front, to find the new boys, Marshall’s age, all in caps, bringing bottles and cakes. They covered a table with the things they brought and the things they’d accumulate as the barn filled with people and music, until a girl darted in, shushed the crowd and said, “she’s coming.”
Abigail pushed through the teenagers, not feeling them and them not feeling her, to see Ashley And when she did, the crowd yelled, “surprise,” and Ashley’s green eyes swelled wide and her long lashes fluttered, and she moved past Abigail, angled past a few more bodies, found Marshall and wrapped her arms around him, squeezed him and kissed his cheek.
Someone turned the music back up, and Abigail followed Marshall and Ashley outside. Ashley held his hands in hers, looked down to them, then up to his eyes, and said, “This is amazing. This so much.” And she kissed him. On the mouth.
Abigail shook her head, went back in with the crowd and paced around it. She wasn’t sure of what she’d do, but when Marshall walked up the center of the crowd and jumped on the stage, she went to stand at the front. They ratcheted the music up and he worked his hands through the air, producing coins, making them disappear. All things they’d seen before, but they clapped, because they knew it was just a prelude. Abigail looked back to Ashley, hovering in the middle of the crowd, eyes still wide like she was holding her breath, and Abigail, because she couldn’t watch, went into the stage.
She knew the dance and listened for the stomps. The trap door came down, and she knew what would come.
And she couldn’t let it.
She stood, pushed up on the door, and its edge caught his feet as he tried to fall. He shuddered, and part of him made it through, but just one leg. The other, the shin of it, smacked the stage, shot his hands forward; his face and nose smacked against the wood. He fell and the cape fell, too, and covered him in the darkness below. Then he ran, as soon as he’d landed, out the back, hand over his face. She yelled, “I didn’t mean to,” and followed him outside, to watch him run into the woods.
Abigail could hear the awws and gasps from inside, and moved around the barn, to the front, to where she’d left her wine.
He was crying when she found him. Back up against a tree. She set the jug nearby, dropped an acorn to it, and he found it by the sound. He moved back to his seat, uncapped the jug, gulped, and let the excess run down his throat.
“I’ll make it up to you,” she said, standing in front of him, talking so softly he wouldn’t have been able to hear anyway. “I could help your magic. Even Ashley.”
He was chugging from the bottle, it a quarter empty; and he chugged again and it was half empty, drinking like he meant to hurt himself.
“You just don’t know what it’s like,” she said, and wiped at her eyes like there might be saline there. “It’s just so lonely.”
And as his eyes sagged, and his head too, she realized he did know. Ashley wasn’t coming for him. They couldn’t survive this.
So she went back, to the bottom of the barn, where they kept the tools and found a length of rope. And tied it as she returned, hurrying, excited.
And she wrapped one end to the tree, and tied the other around his neck, looking into his eyes as she did, saying, “We were so lonely where you are now. But this way we won’t be.”
And he was so drunk, when she tugged on the rope, he stood. And she tugged, and he was on his toes.
Teetering, eyes rolling.
And Abigail was crying, from the tension in the rope, and pulled harder when she heard footsteps cracking. And when she saw it was the three boys that were first to the party, she panicked, pulled down hard, and he was in the air. But one of the boys had grabbed him. Had hoisted him so he could breathe, and the others were tearing at the rope. And even though they couldn’t see her, she backed away, and wandered, holding her hands around her neck, hoping she could find someone to help.