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Born of Illusion


The hair on the back of my neck prickles even before I spot him rounding the corner ahead. He saunters toward me, swinging his billy stick, tipping his blue cap here and there to passersby. My spine stiffens automatically and my pulse races. My fear of policemen is as much a part of me as the deep brown color of my hair, and for good reason.

Fortune-telling laws are getting stricter and stricter, so all it takes is one disgruntled client ratting us out to the authorities and we’re in deep trouble. They allow us to hold our magic and mentalist shows because they’re considered harmless entertainment. It’s the private séances the authorities object to, but the amount of money we get is worth the risk.

The officer nods at me and I return his gesture casually, my eyes sliding away from his as he passes. Sometimes I forget how respectable I look now. My green Chanel-style suit, with its boxy jacket and calf-length pleated skirt, doesn’t raise suspicion (or eyebrows) like the gaudier costumes I used to have to wear when money was tight. After several moments, I take a deep breath of relief and slow my pace, enjoying the bustling activity around me.

I’ve only been in New York for a month but have already noticed that everyone acts as if they’re frantically busy. Even the little girls and boys in their bloomer dresses and sailor suits look harried. Office girls, with their modern bobs and tight cloche hats, hurry off to work, and the sidewalknewsstand vendors scream out headlines as if they’re going to change at any moment. I stop and buy a paper for my mother, who has become obsessed with the new crossword-puzzle craze. I’m briefly tempted by the mouth- watering scent of meat pies coming from a nearby pushcart.

But before I can decide, I spot a young man striding toward me. He too must have just bought a newspaper because he’s studying the front page, a studious frown across his solemn features. But it’s the way he walks that captures my interest: confident and self-assured, each foot firmly and properly placed in front of the other. I’m so caught up in watching him that I don’t notice we’re on a collision course until it’s almost too late. I swerve to avoid him at the last moment, the sleeves of our coats brushing as we pass.

“Excuse me,” he says without looking up.

My face reddens. At least he didn’t catch me staring.

What’s wrong with me, gawking at a stranger in the street like that! At sixteen, you’d think I’d be more experienced, especially considering how much time I spend around theaters. But most of the men I’ve known have hardly been the marrying type. I snort, thinking of Swineguard the Magnificent, One-Eyed Billy, and Lionel the Lobster Boy. Not the marrying type is an understatement.

A tingling in my stomach distracts me from my thoughts.

It grows more and more insistent, spreading to my chest and legs, and that’s when I know.

It’s happening again.

In public.

Painful red stars erupt in front of my eyes and the world around me dims. I reach for a lamppost to steady myself, hoping no one on the busy street notices. The strong aroma of burned sugar plays around my nostrils. As always, the horror of my visions is served up with the sweet smell of a candy shop.

My heart pounds in terrified expectation of what’s to come. The visions are never pretty images of happy endings. When I’m asleep, I can brush these episodes off as nightmares, even though I know better. When awake, I’m treated to the full, excruciating experience.

I clutch at the lamppost as electric flashes, like a distant lightning storm, illuminate a series of pictures. Some are clear; others are obscured behind an impenetrable mist.

A burst of light reveals a picture of me running down a dark street. I see empty warehouses flashing by as I run past. It’s so real; I feel the rasp of my breath and the sticky, crawly sensation of blood trickling down my cheek. The next image is of my mother’s face, her eyes wide with fear, her bow-shaped lips pinched with an effort not to scream. . . .

“Excuse me, miss. Do you know you have a nickel sticking out of your ear?”

The words break through the hammering in my head, and the darkness in my sight recedes as I whirl around. The vision is interrupted, but the horror at what I saw still swirls in my stomach. Then again, fear has been a part of my life as long as I can remember. Visions of the future aren’t the only psychical ability I’ve been “gifted” with.

Nausea rises up in my throat. It takes several blinks before my eyesight returns to normal. My oblivious savior is a short, round man with a handlebar mustache and dark bowler hat. He is patiently awaiting my response. I swallow a couple of times before I can speak. “Pardon?” I tighten my grip on my shopping basket full of the produce and groceries I bought this morning. You can never be too careful.

Around us, pedestrians go about their day with barely a glance. It takes something special to capture their attention, especially in this aspiring working class neighborhood of brownstone apartments and shops.

Flashing a nubby-toothed smile, my companion reaches up and pulls a nickel out of my ear. A few steps away, a small boy in frayed knee pants, holding a sheaf of flyers, hoots with laughter.

Understanding dawns, and the tension along my neck and shoulders loosens—I’ve been around stage promoters my whole life, and though they’re a shifty lot, they generally pose no immediate threat. Whatever the vision was about, it had nothing to do with this stubby bit of a man.

“Thank you!” I tell him, taking the coin with my left hand. I make a show of switching my basket to the other hand and, with one fluid motion, reach my empty right hand up to the side of his head. “And do you realize you have an onion in yours?”

I smile at the boy, whose mouth forms an O as I pull a long, thin green onion out of the man’s ear.

The man’s eyes widen, then he grins in appreciation.

I relax. Most male magicians resent girls who practice magic. Obviously, this little man isn’t one of them.

“Wait! There’s more!” Not to be outdone, he reaches up and begins pulling brightly colored scarves out of my other ear. Around us, a small crowd forms, and excitement kicks my pulse up a notch. My mother says I’m a show-off, but I prefer to think of myself as a performer. Plus, it’s been weeks since I’ve done any street magic. It doesn’t go with the shiny new image of respectability we’re trying to cultivate.

“Wonderful,” I tell him, taking the scarves and crumpling them into a tight ball. I wink at the people gathering around us. “I was looking for those.”

They laugh appreciatively. With a snap of my wrist, I flick my fingers open toward the man’s face. There’s a small gasp and scattered applause as they realize that the scarves have disappeared.

“Hey!” the man protests good-naturedly. “Those were mine.”

 “I’m sorry.” I set the basket by my feet to free up both hands. Now I am showing off, but performing in front of an audience is so much fun, I can’t resist. “Perhaps you would take these in trade?” I whisk three silver bangles off my left wrist. They were made especially for me by a silversmith in Boston, and, along with my deck of cards and the balisong in my handbag, I never leave home without them. Working them expertly between my fingers, I juggle them a bit to show everyone they’re three separate circlets. Then I catch them one at a time with the same hand and clutch them together. Moments later, I hold them up and the onlookers gasp. The bracelets are now connected like a chain.

The man throws up his hands, laughing. “I give up you win!”

The boy adroitly maneuvers through the dispersing crowd, passing out flyers.

I replace my bangles and pull the ball of scarves out of the basket where I’d secreted them. “Looking for these?” I ask.

He takes the scarves and shoves them into the pocket of his baggy trousers. “You’re quite good—for a girl.”

“Thank you,” I tell him, ignoring the girl remark. If I argued with every male magician who made a snide comment about my gender, I’d never have time to do magic.

I prefer to outperform them onstage, where it really matters.

“My mother and I are opening tomorrow night at the Newmark Theater.”

“Swanky! A magic show, I take it?”

My stomach sinks a bit. I wish it were just a magic show.

“I do a bit of magic in the show, but Mother’s a mentalist. I mostly assist her. If you’d like to come, I’ll leave you tickets at the box office. Just tell them Anna Van Housen sent you.” I nod toward the boy. “I’ll leave one for him, too.”

“That would be grand! My name is Ezio Trieste.” He holds out a grubby hand and I shake it firmly. “You and your mother might be interested in this show Sunday night. Dante!” he yells at the little boy still handing out flyers to anyone who will take one. “Give the lady one of those.”

I take the proffered paper with a smile, then hand the man back his coin.

I glance down at the flyer and everything around me dims as I read the headline.


“Thank you,” I whisper, and turn away, forcing my heavy limbs to move. The ringing in my ears drowns out the sound of the automobiles on the street as I hurry down the sidewalk. After half a block, I slow and crumple the paper in my hand. Tossing it into the gutter, I stop and take a measured breath. My mother’s sharp eyes see everything, and the last thing I need is for her to find out that Houdini’s in town.

Born of Illusion
by by Teri Brown