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And for My Next Trick...

Robert Balentine, Jr. is an emergency room physician in Arkansas, currently trying not to be a statistic to a pandemic. He wrote a mediocre novel once before deciding that he should actually learn how to write. He lives in a semi-quarantined house with two highly energetic dogs, a frenetic kindergartener, and a very exhausted wife. He has been published in Fudoki Magazine and 101Words.
The rooftop terrace where Anton awaited his lunch jutted precipitously out over the Vegas Strip. When viewed from the street below, this gave one the impression that the building was in a deep yaw to starboard. During the night, the dappled pink and purple neon lights overpowered the stars, but in the sun-soaked Nevada day, the neons were likewise swallowed by the churning fusion reactor some ninety-three million miles above.
A million tourists were or would soon be awakening from their post-revelry slumber. Anton leaned back in his chair and sipped at a "Pomegranarita"--a phonetically clumsy portmanteau of a remarkably refreshing drink, once you got past the flotilla of tiny umbrellas in the glass. Anton pinched one of the mini parasols between his thumb and forefinger and spun it with a flick. It tumbled listlessly toward the ground, causing him to frown.
I want you to rise.
The umbrella changed course, gained altitude and flew over the balcony railing, a papier-mache ballerina pirouetting its way to the street. Anton followed it with his gaze until it passed a large billboard figure holding a black top hat and wearing a tuxedo. He smirked at his over-sized likeness for a time before deciding that its teeth needed whitening. Instantly, his multi-story grin brightened and shone with a cartoonish star-shaped sparkle on one tooth. This latter addition vanished when he decided it was too campy.
In the haze beyond the billboard, a single red light blinked merrily atop a replica Eiffel Tower. Anton strained, stretching out his will to grasp at the electrics, but the lights continued to flicker, unperturbed by his efforts.
Too far away.
"Mr. Marvelo, can I have your autograph?"
Anton turned to find a small girl standing sheepishly a few feet away, holding a blue spiral notebook adorned with frolicking unicorns. In her pale, white hand she held a comically large pen with a shower of pastel tassels protruding from one end. Her cheeks flushed pink as their gaze met and she looked down at her shoes. Some distance behind her stood a gaunt, equally pale woman holding a child's backpack. She chewed at her collagen-injected lower lip and clutched at the string of pearls around her neck. Anton motioned the girl over and the woman's shoulders relaxed.
"How old are you, little one?" Anton asked.
"Six," the girl muttered, still apprehensive.
She held out her notebook in front of her, a shield against an uncomfortable interaction. The unicorns on the front cover were decorated with multicolored crayon wings. Across their eyes were hand-drawn black patches that Anton supposed were meant to be sunglasses.
"Would you like me to sign your notebook?"
The girl nodded, shield lowering marginally.
"What is your name?"
"Alice," she answered, softly, chewing on the tip of one finger.
Anton took the pen and thumbed past dozens of crude drawings and sketches of fantastical beasts with misspelled block letter descriptions, ultimately finding a blank page midway through the jotter. His magician's signature was a point of particular pride. Even before he was famous, Anton had spent long hours in his single-room apartment in front of a mirror, practicing a technique that was equal parts function and flourish. He showcased this now, signing, "To Alice, with love--The Magnificent, Magnanimous Mr. Marvolo!" Beside his autograph, he sketched himself and Alice riding a winged unicorn. He motioned the girl closer and revealed the drawing, the page visible only to the two of them. The unicorn drawing reared up on the page, pen figures waving their arms in greeting. Alice giggled. Anton touched the page with a single finger and the drawing froze, unicorn and riders fixed in eternal greeting.
"For you, my darling. Thank you for being my biggest little fan," he said, handing Alice the notebook.
"Thank you so much for being understanding, Mr. Marvolo," Alice's mother interjected, joining her daughter tableside. "She... well, really we-are such big fans of yours."
"It's no problem," Anton responded, showman's smile ablaze. "I always adore meeting enthusiastic young people."
"That trick, the one where you drove a car into a mirror onstage then looked back out at the crowd was just amazing. My husband and I went to see it three times and we just couldn't believe it. So amazing."
"So marvelous," Anton corrected, bowing his head slightly. "Thank you, I worked very hard on that one."
The woman paused, hand to pearls again. These clattered nervously between her fingers. "I-- I don't suppose you could give me a hint about how you did it, could you?"
He gave her a sly smile and a wink. "Trade secret, I'm afraid."
The woman's cheeks blossomed into a ripe red and the duo backed away, mother giving something between a genuflect and a curtsey to mark their retreat.
Anton ran his hand under his lapel, feeling the outline of the thin, oblong device taped to his chest. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. He chuckled at the thought. There were times when he had pangs of guilt for not saving the alien that handed it to him, but these were usually assuaged by a glance down at his tailored suit, manicured nails, and Piaget watch. He was the hottest act in Vegas now and the world was soon to follow. This certainly beat kids' birthday parties and nursing home shows. What did the creature expect? You couldn't hand someone a device that granted them virtually unlimited control over reality and realistically think they could resist its temptations? Of course, the alien offered its obligatory warnings, made more dire by its imminent demise and all--for emergencies only, dangers untold, that sort of thing. Anton was most dubious of the alien's claim that a star winked out with each use. But so what if it did? There were a billion trillion of them in the observable universe (he Googled it), some three hundred billion in the Milky Way alone--enough stars for a million billion lifetimes of use. It wasn't like you could see the stars in Vegas anyway. The lights made sure of that.
"Sir, your lunch is ready." The waitress placed a sizzling plate of beurre blanc steak and lobster in front of him. Anton closed his eyes and inhaled, steaming butter and fresh cracked sea salt tickling the edges of his palate.
"Will there be anyth--" A clattering noise interrupted his reverie and Anton opened his eyes, catching the last bounces of a serving tray as it fluttered to a stop near his feet. He looked up at the server's face and noted how the neon lights reflected in the whites of her wide-open eyes, eyes that gleamed in stark contrast to the now coal-black afternoon sky.
A cold wind blew in from the desert, rolling up and across the terrace, carrying with it the rising screams of a million people.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, August 28th, 2020


This story, like most, is the confluence of two ideas. The first here is the classic quote about magic and science combined with the idea of a failed Vegas magician stumbling upon a device that gives him the power to do things that seem like actual magic. Tie in a bit of human propensity for short-sightedness and our ability to ignore suffering when it is immeasurably far away and you have Anton, who is more like the rest of us than we probably care to admit. And what better place than Las Vegas, a city of glitter and false promises, to add a bit of color? I hope you enjoy the story.

- Robert Balentine, Jr.
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