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art by Cheryl L Owen-Wilson

The Best Trick

John M. Shade's work has appeared in Everyday Weirdness and Daily Science Fiction. He lives in Texas, and is at work on his first novel, and also a graphic novel.

The lights were strung and the music played soft in the night, the town dancing close. Everyone had come out. The mayor and his wife. Small Joseph and Maralene, the boy's crush. Families and strangers. Daughters and sons. Light bloomed against the dancing square like a declaration. Games and food and shows all around (an old circus town should know how to throw a party), and the night trundled on, unaware.
They kept their weapons close, though, like any good town would.
Small Joseph, the illusionist's son, watched Maralene from across the dancing square, through the bodies of those pressed close and dancing already. It always happened like this. The feeling built upon itself until it was almost unbearable, but then when it came time to act he always turned away, told her he had to practice at the gun range, shooting straw bandits, or he had to help with dinner, or that he couldn't be out after dark.
He found the courage to stand, there in the swimming light and sound. There was nothing to lose now, so close to the end. Plain clothes and red hair, she had freckles across the bridge of her nose. Her eyes sparkled when she knew the answer to a question in school. He moved through the bodies, brushing against them as if they were already dead. Their hands were calloused from the preparations for the morning, for when the gangs came again. Dirt-stained clothes and tools scattered about town.
"If all goes well," the mayor had told them. But they knew better. They had always known. The world had just yet to catch up. It was hard to stay out in front of it for so long.
Small Joseph came to her sitting at a table with others (it was always with others). This time he knelt beside her, whispered in her ear. Hardly anyone paid any mind. He slipped a ring on her finger and stole her away into the dancing pairs, her head on his chest, the time draining away around them.
They knew it was the last they had, like any town would.
The illusionist's son knelt beside the grave mound where his mother lay, watching the crypt-blossoms swaying in the wind. On the headstone, in bold letters were words like "hero" and "savior".
"There was a trick she couldn't do," said the mayor behind him. He pointed a cigar toward the grave. "It snags you eventually, every one of us."
Joseph didn't turn. "I'm not as good as her. Never will be."
"I know. They'll keep coming, again and again. We're already dead, just the world that hasn't caught up to it yet."
Joseph stayed silent.
The mayor said, "It's OK. I wouldn't pick any of us either," and then left, the scent of his cigar smoke trailing in the air long after he was gone.
The illusionist's son woke before the dawn, before the bandits came to burn and kill. The sky stretched wide across the prairie, the night animals gone away to their dens already. Maralene lay next to him, warm like home. Like she had slept beside him for a lifetime.
"Our time is up," Small Joseph whispered into her ear.
She stirred, still asleep.
"My mother taught me the best trick is the one you get out alive with. I see now why she died so early. She came upon a village burned and its people dead by cruel men, and tricked the world into thinking they survived, huddled somewhere in a basement far from harm. The best illusions are the ones everyone thinks is real, even reality. Every stone touched and every bent blade of grass. Even the wind curling around them. She found a way to keep them alive, long after you were meant to be gone."
From out of the window, he could see them on the far hill, gathering.
"It took its toll. So did I, I guess. The bandits would come, again and again, and burn and kill, and every time she would set it right again. But she's gone now, and I am not her. We could have had a family by now, Maralene, in another version of life.
"Though I am not my mother, I still have enough left for one more trick. You will move through the world and find someone else, forgetting all of this. You will have a happy life, somewhere far from here. The world will remember you when you are old and ready, and you will find me in the spaces between life and what comes after, and we can start again, if you still want."
The hoof-beats came closer as the sunrise spread against the horizon. Gunshots and screams. The sounds of fighting a ways off, drawing closer. The illusionist's son kissed the back of her neck, and had the wind carry her away. He concentrated on the effect, like his mother taught. He took his gun and stepped out into the cold morning, buildings already ablaze. They had grown used to it, like any town would.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, January 27th, 2014
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