Presto! Presto?

I’m a novelist, but on occasion I am inspired to write a short story. I was looking though my files recently and found this one.  Unlike my novels, my short stories tend to be dark. I don’t know why this is … maybe another part of my sub-conscience wanting its turn?

Presto! Presto?

By Sandra Bruney

Heeding the advice of her mother, Helen had followed the same format for Timmy’s birthdays ever since she had invited Fat Margaret to his first.  One child for each year, Mrs. Owens had said, and so far it had worked like a charm. On his second birthday, she invited Fat Margaret and Benny next door, and on his third she had added Leroy Strunk from nursery school. From then on, Timmy had chosen his own guests and, without her urging, always invited those who had attended the year before.

On this birthday, nine children eagerly awaited the promised festivities. Fat Margaret, who had been so chubby even her dimples had dimples, was now as slender as a reed and a head taller than Timmy.  Susan Givens’ parents had moved away six months ago, allowing Timmy to invite the twins, Alex and Andy, from his Cub Scout den.

Helen had hired a magician, only later wondering if the entertainment would be too tame for children recently introduced to electronic adventures of Mario and Donkey Kong.  She had more second thoughts when he arrived, clearly past retirement age, his costume faded and shabby.

She needn’t have worried: he took control immediately, corralling the guests in a circle and leaning over Timmy to exchange a few words to the birthday boy. Timmy beamed and nodded to whatever the magician had said, and then they settled down.

Magus the Magnificent took a Kennedy half dollar from Leroy Strunk’s ear and pulled yards of gaudy silk ribbon from Fat Margaret’s pocket. He even produced a docile Belgian rabbit from his top hat. He handed it to Helen, who stroked the soft fur.

“Now,” he said at last, “for my grand finale and most famous trick. I need a volunteer.” He looked about with an inquiring expression.

“Me! Me!” the children cried but, not surprisingly, he pointed to Timmy, who jumped up as if on springs.

“I will hold out my cape,” Magus the Magnificent declared in his deep voice, “and when I refold it, Timmy will have disappeared into another realm.”

Leroy Strunk looked frankly disbelieving and one of the twins snorted.

The magician held out his cloak, effectively hiding the guest of honor.  “Abracadabra! Presto!” he said, and pulled the cloak back to his body.

Timmy, as promised, had disappeared.

“Now bring him back so we can have cake,” Fat Margaret commanded.

Magus smiled and held out his cloak again. “Abracadabra! Presto!” he said triumphantly. He whirled the cloak about his body with a flourish.

Timmy was not there.

Two or three of the children giggled uncertainly. Magus looked vexed and said in a loud voice, “We will try one more time.” Again, the cloak was extended, the words intoned.

No Timmy.

Helen stood up, dumped the rabbit from her lap. “Timmy? Come on out. This isn’t funny,” she ordered.

Magus muttered, “He was supposed to hide behind the drapes and then come out when I held out the cloak the second time. I’m certain he understood how the trick worked.”

But Timmy was not behind the billowing drapes Helen had so proudly installed only a few months ago, nor was he behind the wing chair or the dining room doors. He was nowhere to be found, in the house or outside.

Helen called Roger and told him to come home from his office, where he had decided to wait out the party. She then called the children’s parents to come and collect them. And then, she called the police.

The children were questioned together and separately, but none of them could provide a clue. Magus, who in reality was Dominic Vasco, was questioned at length at police headquarters, but in the end they had to let him go. He had violated no law except, perhaps, one of metaphysics and they did not know how to charge him with that.

Volunteers spent a week searching the house and grounds, then the neighborhood and its perimeter. No trace of Timmy was ever found.

During the first year after his disappearance, calls came from all over the country. Timmy had been sighted at Disney World, at a shopping mall in Erie, Pennsylvania, at the top of the Empire State building. None of the boys was Timmy.

Unable to stand the look of puzzled grief in Helen’s eyes, Roger asked for a divorce and a transfer to his company’s west coast office. Helen never saw or heard from him again.

Fat Margaret got married and Leroy Strunk was killed in Desert Storm. The twins created a dotcom company and were almost as rich as Bill Gates.

Helen kept their letters, always sent around the date of Timmy’s birthday, in a special drawer in the rosewood desk in her bedroom. And on his birthday, she sat in her empty living room and whispered to herself, “Abacadraba! Presto!” hoping that this time when she opened her eyes her son would be standing, grinning at his cleverness, in front of her.

Lesson re-learned

When my first two non-fiction books were published, I was elated. A real publisher had accepted my submissions. It was a small, indie press, but to me it was a first step. Never mind that the company went out of business a few years later and I had to re-publish the books on my own. The experience was invaluable in that I realized I was no longer a wannabe, but a professional writer.

The second lesson I learned was during the editing process. Each book (Angels Unaware and The Lunch Club) elicited the same directive from the editor: Lose the first chapter.

It’s good advice. Many writers, including me, think that everything has to be explained in the first pages. We throw in too much back story, we put in too much detail about the characters and their lives, and we never get to the point of the story until chapter two. It’s not until then that the action begins to gain momentum.

I tried to follow that advice with my next books, published by a different small press. I started out with the problem and the story accelerated from there.

But I must have forgotten with my current work in progress. Like the tablecloth I mentioned in my last post, I kept starting and stopping, knowing something was wrong, but just not getting it. The first chapter limped along like a dog with a sand spur in his paw. Aggravating and painful.

Then one evening the answer came to me. The first chapter is boring because it doesn’t state the problem in the first page. It drones on until about mid-chapter, and then we discover the dilemma the protagonist faces. By then, most readers would have yawned and tossed the book aside.

Yep, I needed to lose that first chapter. So I highlighted and deleted the whole thing  and rewrote the second chapter (now first) so that the reader knows immediately what the heroine faces.

The lesson here is that we continue learning, but sometimes we forget what we learned. That’s why it’s so important to keep reading craft books and magazines, to attend workshops, and to work with a critique group.  I submitted that now-gone first chapter to a critique partner who said succinctly that she wasn’t sure if the protagonist was 13 or 30. I re-read it and realized in an effort to make the heroine young, I had essentially made her a teenager. More cuts and revisions.

But now that I’m aware of the red flags that I’d ignored in my blithe assumption that as a published author I knew what I was doing, I am eager to tackle the story again.

And I’m still eager to learn. On October 28, Joseph Bathanti will lead an intensive short story workshop in Wadesboro. I don’t write short stories very often, but I believe that what I  learn from a master writer can be applied to longer works.

If you live in the Charlotte area, check it out at Carolinas Writers Conference. Maybe I’ll see you there!

 

 

 

 

 

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