The park was situated on top of a mound of cedar mulch in the middle of an otherwise vacant lot, slowly wasting away while the world around it carried on. There was not much to it; a steel jungle gym with peeling red paint and sun-bleached monkey bars, a metal slide that was always hot to the touch, and a tattered black swing, hanging from its frame by a rusty chain. Every day at noon, without fail, a white and blue ice cream truck would slowly curl its way around the corner, music box soundtrack wailing through its speakers. That was all, and still the children of the tiny suburb clung to it like some sort of secondary home.
The sun clung feebly behind heavy, grey clouds on the day that the magician appeared. He sat, cross-legged, in a secluded corner of the lot, distanced from the cedar mulch park and the children who crawled on the rickety equipment like monkeys. The magician, who was nearly six feet tall and skin and bones, wore a white dress shirt and a black suit jacket over even darker dress pants. He hid his hair under an antique top hat, something passerby swore was akin to Abraham Lincoln's famous lid. The children, who offered each other scary stories of the man in black, knew he was a magician for one reason only: he carried with him a magic wand.
At first, the parents had been frightened by his sudden presence. On splintered benches under trees that danced in the wind, they murmured to each other quiet words of concern. Horror stories of what they called 'freaks' – stories of men that would steal their children away from them and do terrible things – floated on the air like a promise, a danger rolling in on the edge of a storm cloud. For the first time in as long as both the children and their parents could remember, the ice cream truck did not show up.
But still, despite the anxiety that crippled the population of the tiny suburb that afternoon, the magician remained in his small corner, oblivious to the rumours and the harsh glares that passed his way. On the grass beside him lay a deck of cards whose backs were decorated with shiny red geometric shapes, more abstract than anything the children had seen in school. If they were to look on the front, they would see that the faces of the cards were pristine, freshly laminated with bright colors. The magician piled them nicely beside him, more focused on the objects he held in his hands. His wand, which never left his right hand, he periodically tapped against his hat and smiled. The children and their parents watched this from a distances, unnerved by the stranger's behaviour. In his other hand, the magician carried a small, metal ball. He did nothing other than rub it in his hands, examining it closely with brow furrowed and eyes squinted.
That afternoon passed by in what seemed like a breath. Parents who remained vigilant on the benches of the park like sharks on the edge of a feeding frenzy stayed at the park for mere minutes before they grabbed their children by the arms and dragged them away without looking back. Others, more lax in how they viewed society, allowed their children to play on, periodically sparing glances in the direction of the magician. He often smiled to himself, they noticed. It was a roguish, charming smile, but it was the smile of a child. There came a point around dinner time, just as the last of the children were leaving, that one of the parents threw a look in the secluded corner of the park. The magician was gone.
The next day passed the same way. The sun tried its best to peer from behind low hanging rain clouds that spoke of imminent danger, and the magician sat in the corner with his cards at his side. This time, in addition to his very tall top hat, he wore a long, black cape. His second visit was more than enough to send panic amongst the parents. While the children watched from their places among the metal and plastic contraptions, the blue and red lights of the police car flashed so brightly they could almost be mistaken for the first cracks of lightning. The officer tapped the magician on the shoulder and spoke to him in a stern, authoritarian voice.
"Sir, this is no place for any funny business."
The magician only smiled and stood up, following the policeman up and out of the park. The inhabitants of the little suburb, the children of the park, watched his ascent onto the sidewalk, and out of sight. A collective sigh of relief was given on the second day, the day that the ice cream truck returned to its route.
He returned on the third day, a day where the sun was so high in the sky that its warmth was felt all around the city, peering in the cracks of buildings and seeping through the holes and slits in windows. The magician stood this time, performing tricks to no one in particular. Parents held their children back from him, and many armed themselves with their little cell phones, intending to call the police as quick as they could. Many of them thought there was something wrong with the tall, thin man who dressed like a fool in the middle of the public park.
Until that day, no one had made contact with the magician. He spoke in smiles and sighs of happiness, in eyes that were dim and hands that moved expertly in their motions, content to be surrounded by people who wanted nothing to do with him. The little girl who bravely ventured towards him on the third day was no more than seven, wearing a lovely pink dress with tiny red bows, and small red ballet slippers on her feet. She was there with her sister, a young teenager who was more preoccupied with her cellphone than the girl in her charge. The little girl stepped tentatively towards the magician with a small smile on her face. The parents watched with mixed emotions; many were fearful, but others carried somber looks that spoke of past horrors and future pity. The magician looked down at her, drank in the sunshine that radiated from her smile, and pulled his top hat from his head. It was very soft, made of dark black velvet, and he held it top down in his hands so that the little girl could see inside of it. She looked him in the eyes with hardly an ounce of hesitance, but her face dropped when she realized there was nothing in the hat.
The magician held a finger to his lips, then bent to the ground to grab his wand. He closed his eyes, tapped the brim of the hat three times, and opened them again. Around him, a wind picked up and the branches swayed lightly, their leaves glimmering like emeralds in the summer sun. The little girl looked up at the magician curiously, and he reached into the hat, still meeting her eyes. Into her waiting hands, he deposited a baby duck.
There was a collective gasp from the crowd of parents and children, and perhaps even an undertone of puzzlement. Those who were entertained by the magician and not afraid had been anticipating the arrival of the symbolic white rabbit. The others were merely shocked by the animal's appearance. The little girl in the pink dress looked up and giggled. She placed the baby duck on the ground and leaned forward, wrapping her arms around the magician's middle.
The magician smiled, "You're welcome."
His voice was soft and quiet, the voice of an angel come from the body of the 'freak', from the body of the devil. It was a sound so gentle it fell on the ears of the crowd like rose petals, like the way that the silence engulfed the air during the calm before a storm. The parents and the children were silent as the little girl picked up her baby duck and pranced away. The magician deposited his hat back on his head and turned his back to the inhabitants of the suburb. The parents met each other's eyes with looks equal parts shame and concern. This man, so gentle to the little girl just moments ago, so quiet and unassuming, was no more a monster than one of the inhabitants of the suburb that feared him. For the second time, the ice cream truck did not show up.
The magician's appearance, after that day, was no longer a red flag for the parents or the children. While their mothers and fathers still eyed him with wariness and hesitation inspired by the missing person reports that frequented the news, they allowed their children to approach the magician, to watch him perform trick after trick. The children were especially fond of tricks that involved animals, and to more than one of the adults' disdain, more pets were taken home in that week than any other time of their lives.
Six days after the magician first appeared, he completed a trick that sent the minds of the children reeling. This was a weekend, and people had come from all around the town to see the mysterious man who had become a bit of a celebrity. The local news had run a story of the strange, tall man who had become the latest inhabitant of the cedar mulch park, whose rickety slides and monkey bars had been forgotten. It had rained the night before, and the grass was still wet with water droplets that soaked into running shoes and melted through thin layers of socks. A group of children and curious adults formed a semi-circle around the magician as he pulled from his pocket the shiny, metal ball he had be holding on his first day in the park. He held it between two hands, rubbing it around his palms and shining the silver surface every so often with the edge of his cape. In front of an audience filled with awe, the magician held the ball in one palm, and placed his other palm high above it. With little struggle, the silver ball floated upwards, suspended between palms by some sort of invisible force. His audience gasped, sharing puzzled glances riddled with the most innocent form of amazement.
The magician watched his own work with loving eyes and a smile on his face that could light the world. Slowly, he lowered his palms, the silver ball collapsing in his hands. He held it there for a while, as the crowd of adults and children clapped around him enthusiastically. When the magician looked up, they had begun to disperse, children heading back to parents and others beginning the ascent out of the cedar mulch park.
He pocketed the ball and drew his cape around himself tightly. Inside his chest, the magician's heart swelled with happiness. He was picking up his magic wand from the ground beside him, where it rested on a soft patch of grass, when the pair of feet swam into his vision. The magician followed the shoes, a black pair of ballet flats, up to the face of the visitor. It was a young lady, no more than twenty years old, with eyes green like the needles of an evergreen tree and kind like those of a grandmother. There was a permanent, mystified smile printed on her lips.
The magician said nothing. The woman watched him carefully, the wind brushing tendrils of dark hair around her face and neck. He could feel the moments tick by the longer they stared at each other, see them pass in the number of people that trickled out of the park.
"You're quite the celebrity around here."
There was something in the young lady's voice that told that magician she was not afraid of him, and that she was even interested, by some miracle of fate, in talking to him. The magician gingerly tugged on the edge of his cape and nodded modestly.
"It's turning out to be that way, yes."
An uneasy silence drifted between them that neither seemed willing to break. The young woman looked to the wet grass, her cheeks tinged with a hardly noticeable pink blush. When she looked back up to him, he had taken his customary top hat off and held it close to his chest, wrapped tightly in his arms. His hair floated about easily in the wind, feathery, brown, and once neatly combed. He was smiling.
"I'm Rebecca," the young woman tried again, a little more confidently than before. This time, her cheeks did not heat up, "Becky. What's your name?"
The magician smiled again, "A magician never reveals his secrets."
Becky laughed, an airy sound that reminded him of the birds that chirped in the park in the early morning. She gestured to the magician's hat and wand.
"You're not gonna pull a dog out of there or anything, are you?"
He looked down at the top hat, a little caught off guard by her impromptu question. He laughed, and the chuckle was a noise he was not accustomed to.
"No promises, I'm afraid," The magician said quietly. He nodded his head in Becky's direction politely, "Might I ask what I can do for you, Becky?"
Around them, the wind blew the trees with their hundreds and thousands of leaves gently. The cedar mulch park was not empty, but the magician and his friend were hardly in the middle of a suburban hotspot. In the background, they could hear the playful screams of children who had once again noticed the rusty monkey bars and the rickety metal slide. Becky breathed a silent laugh and looked away from him.
"How do you do it?"
She smiled easily and met his eyes. In hers, the magician could see a fiery determination. Behind that façade was a crumbling desperation. Becky brought both hands up in front of her chest in a gesture that she let fall just as quickly as she has begun it.
"How do you do it? All those tricks…that ball? How did you make it float like that? I've been here for the last five days, just to see you. All magicians have tells – except you. How do you do it?"
The magician clutched the top hat tighter against his chest. The wind died down around them, and the heat burned down from the sun, high in the sky. When he spoke next, his words were quiet, enunciated clearly and calmly.
"Don't you believe in magic, Becky?"
Becky laughed at him, a full blown laugh which she tried to cover up by putting her hand over her mouth. When she realized the magician was not laughing with her, she stopped, the gleeful smile fading from her face. An eerie calm settled over the cedar mulch park. The magician looked at Becky with wide, innocent eyes.
"What, you're telling me that was real magic?"
Her voice carried all the doubt that the magician needed to hear. He said nothing, but continued to stare at her. Becky opened her mouth to speak, but the magician held up a finger to silence her, reaching into his pocket and grabbing his deck of cards. He shuffled them in his hands amidst the growing afternoon heat and held them out to Becky in fan formation, encouraging her to select one.
"Trying to prove me wrong?" Becky snorted. The magician said nothing, and under trees that once more began to dance in a newfound, strong wind, he waited for her to pick a card. Becky hesitantly patted down the bottom of her sundress and reached for a card, holding it away from him and close to her chest. The Seven of Hearts twinkled like a gem in the sun beaming down over her shoulder.
The magician cut the deck in half, and tapped one pile of cards. Becky slid the card back into place and watch him shuffle them thoroughly, a simple technique far different to the complex card breaking she had seen her father do at his weekly poker games when she was a child, crowding the kitchen table, awestruck by his handiwork. He tapped the deck with his wand, which she figured was more for show than anything, and lifted the top card to her.
Ace of Spades.
"Wrong card, magic man," Becky said, almost reluctant to break the news to him. The magician's face fell, and the turned the card over and over again, looking for the place he had gone wrong, "It's okay, guy. We all screw up sometimes. Still believe in magic?"
When he came to his senses, the magician looked back over at her, a little stunned.
"You're right. We all have tells."
"You know, the whole neighbourhood was pretty scared of you at the beginning. They thought you were some kind of pervert or something. Bad guy."
The magician considered this for a moment, knowing full well the trouble he had caused upon his arrival in the park. It was not his first park, nor his first city, nor was Becky the first young lady to approach him.
"We all have evil inside of us, Becky," he offered as a sort of explanation, "Some people just choose to let it define them."
Becky smiled, the same mystified and innocent smile she had offered upon their meeting.
She left him, then, without saying goodbye. Her hair fluttered behind her in the wind, dark and curly like row upon row of Christmas ribbon, and her white sundress twisted around her ankles. Becky climbed the hill out of the cedar mulch park, where her car was waiting, idling at the curb. The identical houses of the suburbs blurred past her in the car windows on the drive home, becoming dark, earthy shades of red brick and green grass, black dirt and bright flowers. The only thing that comforted her after the meeting with the magician was that conformity, the repetition of two story house and five year old minivan, deflated soccer balls and rusty lawn tools in the front yard.
Becky's apartment was dark when she entered it, still like unmoving, unbreathing lungs in the heat of summer. Dust was settling on top of her dark, oak coffee table, and the rays of sun from between her Venetian blinds illuminated each and every particle. She stepped in, closed the door, and headed for her bedroom, eager to change into cooler clothes forget about her afternoon.
She spotted it on her pillow, and her heart stopped. It was made of plastic; new, red, and white. The pattern on the back was unmistakable. Becky stepped closer to the pillow and reached out a trembling hand. The playing card slid between her fingers like a knife, and she unwillingly turned it over. The Seven of Hearts looked back at her, unwavering and unseeing. In the bottom corner was a message for her, scribbled in black ink.
Do you believe in magic, Becky?
Her breath caught in her throat.
Neither the magician, nor the ice cream truck were ever seen at the cedar mulch park again.