I was resting in a room I hadn't seen in years. It was filled with the sunken memories of rusted treasure, buried hopelessly in a recurring echo of betrayal and the un-lived smell of caked soap and the eerie feeling of a giant tape-recorder that had never been turned off, as if I had never left, all those years ago, hoping to make a name for myself as a journalist.
Little had changed. It was a shrine to me, from my mother believing I would eventually return to it, to her.
She was half right. I had returned, but she was long dead.
The last time I saw her was when she kissed me, tears on her face as I pulled away from her, terrified I would miss my flight.
When I received the news, two years later, that her health was deteriorating, I reasoned with myself that she said that every time she got a simple headache. Besides, I had a make-or-brake interview with an editor in one of the most prominent newspapers in the city.
Priorities, I told myself.
God, how I sweated that morning, despite the autumn chill! I couldn't stop running to the bathroom, despite the claims on the bottle's pink label. And when the god-like man welcomed me on board, I floated out of his office, the rush of adrenalin giving me wings that no one could clip. Not a loyal fiancé who had stuck with me through the bad and the terrible, and certainly not a sick woman who had only herself to blame, devouring forty to fifty cigarettes a day.
Months after my appointment as the new court reporter, a telegram arrived at my apartment with all the fierceness of an uninvited relative. I knew its origin and refused to open it for days, hiding it between books before shoving it beneath my bed, like dirty socks and grubby underwear. When I finally tore it open, angrily, one word spat at me over and over again: Dead.
I sat the telegram down and went to the window. Traffic was shimmering in the afternoon heat, all silvery and scaly like stranded salmon. Tiny insect people moved as one vast, blurred colour, swaying in slow motion, going nowhere fast. I poured a large whiskey and stared through the twisted glass, turning everything amber.
Two hours and an empty bottle later, I read the hazy words informing me that her funeral would be halted, giving me time to catch a plane home.
Just like that: Catch A Plane Home.
I tried to sleep but the anger in me resurfaced again and again, asking whom the hell were they to tell me to go back to their mundane existence, to conform to their rules.
I fell back on the pillow, sleep slowly winning, but not before reasoning with myself that I wouldn't be going, after all, to stare at the waxed face of my dead mother.
It was true: you can't go home again.
Things progressed beautifully for a while. Years of hard work and no sleep began to pay dividends. A new editor took over, eager to bring the paper back to its one-time sphere of influence. He needed new blood, people who were not afraid to go for the jugular. I was perfect: a loner with bloodshot eyes and hungry with bills; plus my work on local crime bosses seemed to have impressed.
Then came the devastating news that would send me back, back to a place I no longer cared for nor wished to see.
"Isn't that your hometown, where that guy, the Magician, killed all those people?" asked the editor. He couldn't believe his luck. Someone from the same town as the killer, working here in his building. "I knew from the first day I saw you at your desk, working like a beaver, that you would be an asset to the team," he smiled, his face a politician's on polling day.
Twelve hours later my plane touched down, bringing tiny bats scurrying about in my stomach and feelings so terrible it was as if I had been extradited for some appalling crime I had never committed.
From the bedroom window, a breeze brought in a tribe of smells: melted tar cooling in the night; paint, newly used, with a tacky wetness blending perfectly into the room's dampness. But the attar of rotten apples carpeted on the ground outside, brought back school days and a desk full of untouched lunches with naked bread that made me burn with shame and humiliation.
I shouldn't have returned, I admonished myself, as a migraine -- caused by the paint or nerves -- began to eat my skull.
I lay back on the bed and slowly closed my eyes, waiting for the pills to do their magic.
The pain was slowly easing. The room stopped spinning and I forced myself to the edge of the bed, dreading the thought of all the work that lay ahead of me. I had an army of folders, files and newspaper clippings scattered throughout the room. I picked out a few at random, switched on the light at my old desk and placed a few pages on top, selecting the least disfigured. It was a front-page article from our local rag, describing in detail a police report and the Magician's penchant for violence.
Mr Trainer, former neighbour now living in Australia.
It was the Magician's first taste of publicity, and he relished it. I can remember him buying twenty copies of the newspaper, distributing them to his cronies, who in turn slapped him on the back and shook his hand, congratulating him. I remember how he smiled back with that dead smile of his, seeing through their lies, knowing how they hated him. But that was okay because they feared him. And that was what he wanted. Fear. To keep them in its arena.
(3) "He instilled fear, but so subtle you hardly realised it, until it was too late, touching ya right on the shoulder."
(4) "Evil. Sheer evil."
(5) "Kind. He'd give ya his last penny. Always fed my cats. They never went hungry when he was about."
(6) "Loved animals. Wouldn't hurt a fly. People? Now that's a different story."
(7) "Thought he wuz a wizard or somethin' like that. Thought he could make people disappear. I suppose, in the end, he could."
(8) "They asked me if I thought him an angel. Me? Can ya believe it? Me who don't even believe in God, let alone bloody angels!"
I wanted to stop reading. Jet lag was taking its toll. But something inside drove me on, relentlessly, seeking something for myself as well as my boss. It were as if the Magician was still weaving his magic, forcing me to continue, laughing at me, knowing me just a little too well.
(10) "The tests resulted in a distorted picture. The reason being the subject's manipulative power -- something that should have been spotted by a component psychiatrist. Unfortunately, Doctor Stoppard's ineptitude and unsophisticated method prevented a clearer, more authentic report. It is now evident that the subject was fully in control of his state of consciousness, never losing voluntary power of action or thought, pretending to be highly responsive to suggestions and directions from the hypnotist."
(11) "Heartbreaking. He never realised his potential, preferring to be the clown in class to win so-called friends. Boys like him never have friends; that's the price you pay when you're a genius. People look at me when I use that word to describe him. But that's exactly what he was. A genius. Yes, sir. Heartbreaking. He possessed authentic faith, immovable in its frightening belief, something not obtainable from a box, book or doorstep salesman."
(12) "I hated that boy from the moment he was conceived, tearing out of me with those bloody little hands, ripping me in half, entering the world with a grin, all bloody and shit. My anger of him was equal to Eden's god. Anger, that over the years, turned to unadulterated hate. It wasn't my fault what he turned out to be. Blame God. He created the monster."
Each report I read conjured up images I had tried to suppress. I had attempted, and failed, to erase not only the town but also, specifically, the Magician and the terrible bond that united us.
I listened to the voice of my father coming from the living room. I could hear another voice mingling with it, almost in a whisper, like a confessional.
Or a conspiracy, I thought bitterly, smiling at my paranoia.
This fucking town, this fucking weasel and its offspring. I hate you all.
As I closed the folder, a photo fell from its center, tumbling in slow motion towards the carpet. I bent and picked it up, studying a memory in black and white.
Three kids smiling for the camera. What actors, I thought. All anyone had to do was look at those terrible eyes and mouths with their exquisite nastiness of shadows, to realise the smiles were a lie.
I sat the picture down and thought about burning it but looked again at the faces: Two boys. One girl. All locked together like rust on iron. One of the boys has a wizard's hat on. He's winking. The girl is pretending to strangle the wizard. Was she really pretending? The other boy seems quite lost, embarrassed to be posing with the other two.
You haven't changed much, have you? I thought, glancing from photo to reflection in the mirror. Some grey here, face a little fuller. I wondered how the other two looked, what the years had done to them. If only we had never met, if only we had remained the loners we were meant to be. If only we had never killed. If only.
He was a strange kid who kept himself to himself. His mother owned a shop in the town, but rarely opened it due to her "illness"; at least that's what the cardboard notice always said. Everyone else said too much cheap wine.
Initially, we called him Racoon because he would arrive each day at school with twin black eyes. No sooner had the old bruised eyes started to fade when they were quickly replaced with two newer versions. Most of us came from tough family backgrounds, so there was little if any sympathy for him. It was his problem that his stepfather had fists the size of a dog's head.
He rarely communicated with anyone, so I was surprised when one day he whispered behind my back, "I've somethin' to show you. Meet me in Ryan's, after school." He kept looking over his shoulder, suspiciously, his eyes tiny slits. I looked about the schoolyard, hoping no one had spotted him talking to me.
Ryan's was an old dilapidated house that was used by all the kids in the street as a hideout. It was our citadel, a place where all the cares of being a kid were ancient history in a heartbeat. A place that never let you down, never screamed or lost its temper, beat or criticised. It was everything we wanted at home and despite our youth we all understood it was something that would not last. We were forced to drink it as quickly as possible before it became only a memory, before it became like us, full of flaws and pockmarked with doubts.
It was a good ten minutes later -- a lifetime in my eyes -- when he finally showed up, his face glistening with sweat.
"You're not goin' to believe this," he said, fumbling in a navy-blue bag. The blue was almost black, caused by seeping liquid.
The old house always had those strange smells ghosting in and out of it, of dampness and dust mingling with urine and crap. But this was an altogether alien stench oozing menacingly from the bag.
"God." I moved away from the bag.
"What d'ya think it is?" He was smiling a strange smile. "Have a guess."
I didn't want to have a guess. I wanted to be away from here, from him. "It looks like somethin' in Heany's window," I replied. Heany was the local butcher.
"Take a closer look," he insisted, pushing it under my nose. The smell was terrible and I felt my stomach churn.
"Get it away from me!"
"Guess," he insisted, almost spitting in my face.
I knew what it was. I'd seen a picture of one in school. It both frightened and fascinated me, branding my memory with its white-hot horror.
"A foetus." I glared at him. "Satisfied?"
"A what? No! Don't be stupid! Where would I get one of those? It's a foot," he said calmly without a care in the world, as if carrying a foot in a bag was the norm.
He was laughing now. Not at me, but some secret that had yet to be told.
I could see the door ajar. Make a run for it. Get away from him.
But I didn't, of course. The morbid curiosity of a kid will always outweigh the sensible alternative.
He was right. In the ice, encased like a fish from the fishmonger's window, was a foot, almost perfect except for the missing big toe. I almost laughed with nerves, relieved it was only a foot, not a dead baby.
"Where did you get it?"
The undertaker's grin was back on his face. "Haven't you figured it out? Last week? Down at Copper's?"
"Copper's?" Then it came to me. "The gas explosion?"
"Yes. Two men dead, four injured," he replied, imitating a news-flash voice. "Look at the dirt between the nails. He must never have washed himself, dirty pig." He held the foot by the icy heel, angling it so that the dusty sliver of sun captured it in all its horrible loathsomeness.
"What are you doin' runnin' about the place with it? Shouldn't you give it to the priest or someone?"
"The priest?" He looked at me, bewildered. "Hasn't he enough power over us? Fuck the priest. I would never trust that bastard. He's got more tongues than the Holy Ghost. No, this is one piece of power I'm keeping."
He looked straight into my eyes, trying to read my thoughts on what I intended to do.
"Where have you kept it, all this time? The explosion was over a week ago."
"I hid it. In our fridge, at the shop," he replied, returning his trophy to the bag.
"In the shop? In the fridge with all the ice lollies and ice cream?"
"Yes," he said, nonchalant.
My stomach moved. "You bastard! I bought a Strawberry-Joker from your ma's shop last week. That foot was probably stuck to it. How the hell did your ma not see it?" I asked, knowing her "illness" was to blame.
I will never forget the look on his face, something terrible, indescribable at that moment as he stared at me. Years later I would know that look as the glare of a killer weighing up in a split second how he deemed to dispose of a body.
Deep down I was relieved when he ignored my questions and turned his back on me, exiting with the bag dangling to his side.
Over the coming weeks, he showed the foot to a select few. Occasionally, he permitted an audience in his garage, practically becoming a head-of-state.
He had been right all along. The foot was power, and our eyes -- those betraying mirrors of the soul -- reflected back to him all our fears and repulsiveness, our infatuation with something long dead, but like magic had been brought back to life by him. He was, indeed, a magician, but his power had only just begun.
Soon, he was learning every trick from old magic books bought second-hand down at the local flea market: making coins appear from ears and pins appear from noses. He soon progressed to even more incredible stunts such as turning birds into yellow and blue silk, making them disappear with a click of his wand. Later -- much later -- he would master even more profound tricks by making people disappear, though not into silk, and not in a nice way.
No, not in a nice way at all.
Rats scurried quickly into holes as I approached the perimeter wall of the Prison. Within minutes of arriving, I sat across from a face I thought I would never see again. He reached out his hand and I took it, dreading the touch. He didn't speak, simply stared at me with those eyes that terrified, with that face that had been the last face ever seen by many of his victims.
I couldn't think of one word to say, after all these years, and fumbled for the tape recorder bulging in my pocket, placing it between us. "Do you have a problem with this?" I asked, hitting the 'record' button.
There was hate in his eyes; not original hate but the secretive, retrospective hate anchored in memory. He was finding it difficult to control the seething anger that threatened to break to the surface.
I wondered if I was deliberately goading him or if it was something subconsciously, something that now came naturally to me as a reporter.
"Turn that off," he said, so softly I barely heard him. "Never forget who I am. Now, ask my permission."
I felt my face burning. "May I turn this on?"
He grinned. "No, not yet. First, tell me what's it's like for you, finally realizing your dream. Was it worth it?"
I could hear seagulls and crows squawking outside, fighting over discarded garbage and dead things.
"Was what worth it?" I replied, focusing on his face but not seeing it. "Leaving all this glory behind? God, no! Look what I've missed." There was bitterness in my voice. I had become defensive, justifying my actions, as if they needed to be justified.
He was attempting to reverse the roles, as if he were the reporter and I the subject.
He reached over and pushed down on the record button.
"You know your mother always waited for your return, told me every day you'd be back. But you didn't come, did you - at least not while she lived. Did you hate her that much? You wouldn't come back for her funeral but you came back for my death. Is that ironic or just perverse?"
His perception was as keen as ever. His words -- like himself -- took no prisoners.
I was conscious of the tape's whispered whirl. At any minute it would release itself, cut my throat. He was daring me to turn it off, hoping to tease out the words that sat in my throat like stones covered in dust.
"Killing for a living. That would make a great headline for your readers. Don't you think?" He smiled before leaning back on his chair. "The first is the worse and, strangely, the best. Let me explain the contradiction. Doubt, fear -- religion -- all play a part. Initially, it eats away at you, until the second killing comes along. That helps, a bit, because it muddles the first, slightly. The third? Even better. You've forgotten the first, practically, like alcoholics and compulsive gamblers. But it's a lot easier to obtain a fix. People are such a cheap commodity."
He stopped speaking, permitting the power of emptiness to sit between us, as if it were a judge that had listened intently to each spoken word and whose testimony would come later.
He continued. "But of course, you may have an entirely different perspective. Perhaps you would like to indulge in some youthful---"
I reached over and slammed the tape off. I was sweating. His words had become as slippery as a snail captured in the sun. For a while, he sat like a fox in the dark, waiting, before continuing.
"You're no better than me, knowing the necessity that unexpectedly forces a person, in a split second, to be judge and jury."
I didn't need him to remind me. Every day, since it happened, I had tried to erase that terrible night from my brain. But like a stubborn, bloody stain, it refused to budge.
That night it was raining so bad we almost decided to take a bus home from the dance. We were both despondent at our lack of success in hitching up with any girls. Girls were frightened of him and so I suffered as well. Had we taken the bus, who knows how things may have turned out? Instead it became the seminal moment of my life, changing it utterly.
We decided to cut through the waste ground of burnt-out vehicles, an elephant's graveyard of metal and glass. No sooner had we reached the yard than we spotted a figure that was dreaded by everyone in town: Knocker, a tiny thug whose main ambition in life was to grow into a bigger one. He terrorized everyone in the neighbourhood, even his only family bore the scars.
I stopped, almost rooted to the spot. He was nestled between the carcass of a smashed-up Ford and a rusted wall, bottles of wine at his side.
"We have to be careful of him," I whispered. "He's crazy."
The Magician laughed out loud. "He's only as crazy as you let him be. Isn't that right, Knocker?"
The body stirred. "What? Who?" asked the slurred voice.
"Why did you do that?" I asked incredulously. "We could have sneaked to the other side. He wouldn't have spotted us. You don't know what the hell you've done."
But I was wrong. He did know. Exactly. "The Magician never sneaks!" he shouted at the top of his voice. "I have the power!"
Knocker smiled and for a moment I thought perhaps the drink had dulled his senses, enough for us to run. But he was a reptile, and the speed at which he grabbed the Magician was startling.
"You little bastard," he hissed, squeezing The Magician's throat, tightening the grip as he banged the head hard against the Ford's door, causing burnt, flaky metal to land on his hair like metallic dandruff. "Where's your power? Eh? Where's your friend? Run away like a little girl?"
I hadn't run away. Maybe I should have. The Magician had brought this on himself. Instead, I hid between shadows and mangled metal, terrified, praying that a miracle would happen.
"Oh, I'm sorry. Am I hurtin' you?"
Yes, he was hurting him. But the Magician did nothing to fight the beast, simply smiled, welcoming death. Even when his eyes were falling somewhere in the back of his skull, he believed his magic power would not fail. Authentic. Fixed in its frightening belief.
I will never forget the look on Knocker's face as he reached for an evil-looking piece of sharp metal. He was an animal going for the kill.
There was little choice. I tried grabbing Knocker by the hair, hoping to pull him away. He roared and threw me back on the ground, telling me in no uncertain terms that I was next. He hit the Magician and I swear I heard his neck break.
What happened after that will haunt me forever.
I stood up and slammed Knocker's head, as hard as I could, against a protruding knife-like piece of jagged metal that had been the car's fender. I remember how his blood shot up and outwards, like ink from a fountain pen, splattering my face with force as it gushed from his impaled head. I had wanted to stop watching, but I could not draw my eyes away. I fell to my knees, mesmerised by the horror, sobbing. There was no doubt in my mind he was dead and at that moment in my life I felt so alone, utterly, beyond redemption.
The death would remain unsolved. It helped that Knocker was hated by so many. I only spoke to The Magician one more time, telling him to stay away from me, forever.
He agreed, but not before thanking me for proving beyond doubt that he really did have the Power. It was the Power, after all, that had saved his life.
As I sat in the plane, returning with my "scoop," I tried to reconcile the fact that had I not taken a life that night so many people would still be alive, and the monster would be dead.
The plane took off and I glanced back at the town as lights came on in every home, softly, slowly turning into sparkling black and silver rhinestones. A tourist or a stranger would love it. So welcoming. But like a beautiful marble mausoleum, it wasn't until you looked inside, finding the horror of its contents, that you would realise you were trapped.
I could still see the eerie glow of the prison below me and pictured him sitting, watching the sky, following the plane with those terrible eyes, fooling himself that he had the power to make it crash.
I was heading home. Home to where I belonged. In just two weeks he'd be dead and I'd be free.
A minute later and the town disappeared in the darkness of night clouds. To my right, the sky's canopy began to cover the moon, carpeting everything below in a dull quietness, like the hum of a light bulb just extinguished.
I sat back in my seat and closed my eyes. I am going home, I told myself, and no amount of magic will change that.
© 2001 Sam Millar, all rights reserved
appears here by permission
I would appreciate any comments you may have on this work: firstname.lastname@example.org.