fiction Issue 27

Disappearing Act

by Ben Powell

Staircase by Nicholas C Casciano
Staircase by Nicholas C Casciano

The magician might be drunk. Kelsey catches him pissing behind the shed between acts. It’s a long pee; she’s able to wave me over before the guy finishes.

“This is a kids party,” Kelsey says to him. Ozlo the Omnipotent just shrugs. He pulls black velvet gloves back onto his hands. Steam rises from where he pissed in the compost pile. A few droplets of urine glisten on his shiny right shoe. He adjusts his top hat, walks past us. “The gall,” Kelsey says, but she looks pleased because it’s not really a kids party. That was just the theme that tickled her most.

“I feel like there’s something glamorous about kids parties, you know?” This was Kelsey’s opening argument, part of her petition to convince me to host. “Glamorous and scandalous. The kids are all circled around some clown or magician while the parents get sloshed in the background. Dads smoke sneaky cigars in the garage. Moms have affairs in the guest suites.”

I helped her send out the invites by post, and then I helped her field the many confused text messages we received in response.

Just come, we said to our friends. And bring your kids.

Our friends don’t have children, though Margaux is very pregnant. Kelsey worried that this might ruin the whole joke, but we still invited her because Margaux’s boyfriend is excellent at parties; Gavin: a resistant drinker until you get him started. Then he becomes the cheermeister, according to Kesley. He’s probably been the one forcing alcohol on the magician.

The magician walks a crooked line back through the party, and then Kesley says, “That’s her over there.” She wants to set me up with this botanist friend of hers. I made Kelsey promise not to introduce us directly. Keep it natural. And, at first glance, it does feel right. The botanist’s face is dimpled and kind. She wears a hoodie and baggy jeans. Her name is Rowina, apparently, which seems cool.

“One more drink,” I say to Kelsey. I opt for the fridge in the kitchen over the cooler in the yard. I’ve quit smoking, so I also use the privacy of the kitchen to stuff my lips with nicotine pouches. I check my reflection in my phone to make sure I look normal. Sometimes the pouches give the impression of a fat lip. I press them deeper into my gums. I look fine.

This is my first weekend off in a while. I’m in my residency at the hospital. It’s been rough. I’ve been putting on weight, not sleeping, not working out. I drift through shifts in the urology clinic feeling bloated and unkempt. Kelsey thinks I’ll feel better if my romantic life can take a turn. I think personal distractions will only make things worse. She says sex is good for the soul, but my body feels too formless and weak for this to be a consideration. I’ve had nightmares that involve removing my clothes to find that their structure was the only thing giving me shape. I puddle in my dreams and wake fearing for the integrity of my organs and bones. Then I drive to the hospital for my next shift.

The nicotine tingles at the base of my teeth. I suck down half my beer and totter back out to the party. It’s just after two in the afternoon.

“A volunteer?” The magician queries the crowd from the low platform he assembled on the patio. My triple-decker casts a shadow, and something about the angle of the sun makes the house look unstable, like it’s leaning in the direction of our guests.

I’ve been waiting for something to go wrong ever since I inherited the place. Seemed too good to be true that Mom actually owned it and just never told me. Collapse must be imminent. Maybe everyone else can sense this too, and that’s why they’re avoiding the shadowed area, staying out in the grass, away from the stage. Ozlo the Omnipotent must really need the money. Why else would he put up with this?

I sidle up between Kelsey and Rowina. Kelsey clinks her beer against mine. Rowina smiles up at me. She’s not particularly short, but I am very tall. I’m aware that my shadow entirely envelopes her. I shift to accommodate, standing a weird distance behind them. Kelsey reaches back without looking, and pulls me forward by my belt. I swallow. Rowina smiles at me again. I try to drink my beer but find that the bottle is already empty.

Gavin is the one to raise his hand at the magician’s request, but for some reason this turns into Margaux being led to Ozlo’s platform. She supports her belly with one hand as Gavin drunkenly raises her onto the platform. If I had impregnated a woman, I would certainly keep her away from any magician with a face like Ozlo’s: grim and pock-marked. To be fair, the risk is probably low, given that his first set of tricks consisted of tying balloons into the shape of Kelsey’s friend’s stupid requests. In ascending order of the time they took to tie: a wiener, a bigger wiener, a wiener dog, a vagina dog, and Bush Did 9/11. I guess this passes for magic at kids parties.

“Kelsey was talking about how you might be looking for new tenants?” Rowina says to me.

“We just redid the kitchen on the second level,” I say.

“And by that, he means yes,” Kelsey says. She shoves me playfully and I bump into Rowina. Really, I should be looking for tenants to occupy the second and third floor of my triple-decker because Kelsey lives in the second bedroom on the first level with me. But Kelsey loves the light on the third floor, and she set up all her paints and canvases one weekend when I was away. I don’t have the time or mental fortitude to convince her to move them. Plus, whenever I get frustrated by my own failure to use the property to make a dent in my med-school loans, Kelsey persuades me to smoke weed and paint abstract shapes on her canvases. It makes me feel better. Then we drink wine, and lay out on the paint-spattered drop cloths, and Kelsey talks about the shortcomings of the men she is sleeping with. I think about how Mom must have been inconspicuously managing the tenants on this floor, which is impressive. I drift, I sleep, I wake, I drive to the hospital.

Kelsey and I went to high school together, and back then, she was different. More normal. We weren’t that close. She was friends with my friends. We spent time together in groups. We lost touch when I went to college, and supposedly this was because she joined some culty yoga community in South Africa. Years later, she texted me that she was in town. I didn’t even have her number saved. She said, Where is everybody? We were twenty-six. My life was in motion. I had managed to get my med-school residency back home to be near Mom, but then she passed and left me the triple-decker. Kelsey happened to send that first text a single day after Mom’s funeral. I never explained this to her. I invited her over, and then she never really left. This was two years ago.

“I’m sorry it’s so small,” I say to Rowina. We’re in the house. She’s marveling at the design of the bedroom closet on the second floor. It is too shallow for hangers, so instead there are an array of hooks screwed into the wall.

“I kind of love it,” she says. “It’s like a display case instead of a closet.”

“If you’re nice to him, there might be an Ikea wardrobe in your future,” Kelsey says. She made me build one for her last year. It took me six hours. “I’ll let you two negotiate.” Kelsey skips out of the room, sending me a final, suggestive look: raised eyebrows, scrunched nose.

When Kelsey gives me this look, I get an odd sensation. It’s something I’ve felt before, randomly, when I see her in a certain light or from a certain angle. Maybe I’m just a bit drunk right now. It’s hard to label the feeling, exactly; she somehow looks unfamiliar to me. It reminds me of this news story about a family that adopted a seven-year-old Ukranian orphan. A routine visit to the pediatrician revealed that their adoptee was actually a diminutive nineteen year old.

What I’m trying to say is that sometimes, randomly, I feel like Kelsey is not who she says she is.

I guess I don’t mean this in a literal way. She’s not an imposter, or anything like that. I just mean that I catch these whiffs of deep insincerity. Like she’s not even close to being the abstract-painting, yoga-practicing, DMT-smoking person she pretends to be. Even though she definitely does all those things.

“Did you guys date or something?” Rowina asks. Her voice brings me back into contact with reality, and I feel very, very tired, and a bit confused about how much of my Kelsey suspicion I just aired, and how much was just pinballing in my head.

“That wouldn’t be legal,” I say. “Because she’s my daughter.” I apologize quickly after saying this, explaining that it was an attempted joke. I suppose my brain concocted the punchline because I’ve been thinking about Mom a lot today, and she really wanted me to have children. She wanted to host birthday parties full of screaming toddlers. I suppose today is fairly close to wish-fulfillment in that regard. It is a kids party. If only there were kids.

I take Rowina’s hand and tell her that she can try the second floor for a month, free of charge, just to see if she likes it. As soon as I say it, I can see how the offer may be too much. Kelsey has told me that this is my trademark flaw with women: too fast, too desperate. I also become aware that my hand is very sweaty against Rowina’s hand, so I release it quickly and step back and say, kind of maniacally, “Who wants a drink?”

Maybe I’m not spoiling things. We drink in the kitchen, the two of us. I make no more jokes about Kelsey being my daughter. Rowina selects little notecards from the bar area: Mom’s old cocktail recipes. I miss Mom a lot right then, but in a way that feels healthier than my usual wallowing. I stir up mixtures of my mom’s old booze, and Rowina and I share them out of the same antique glass.

We’re drunk. Rowina has gauged ears. She lets me poke my pinky through the open holes. She wants my expert opinion as a doctor. Do I think they’ll ever be able to heal and close? I try to explain how little my urology specialty relates to earlobes. She describes some sort of cosmetic surgery that’s also an option: they stitch them up. Stitches remind me of Mom’s infection following the biopsy, and I impress myself by not spilling this personal story all over Rowina.

Outside the window over the sink we can see Ozlo waving his arms. People cry out. Someone sounds angry.

We make plans to get hibachi on Tuesday night. Rowina insists that I enter the date into the calendar on her phone. I do, and I also skip ahead two years in the calendar and enter Our Wedding Day on a random Saturday. I show it to Rowina and she laughs and puts her hand in the middle of my chest and shoves. Maybe I’m nailing this. I put my arm around her. We spill back out into the backyard with the others, crossing the threshold from kitchen to back patio with a simultaneous heavy step down. I want to proclaim to the partygoers that the afternoon will be long and full of sunshine, that love and excitement are in the air, that Kelsey was right about kids parties after all—but someone else commands their attention.

“It’s like an easter egg hunt,” Ozlo says. He backs away from Gavin who is demanding that the magician reveal the location of his pregnant wife.

I should feel bad for Gavin, but he is the one who got the magician drunk. Rowina walks right up to the wooden chamber that Ozlo dragged onto his little platform. It’s etched with occult hieroglyphs that are mildly creepy, but it also looks store-bought. Just big enough to conceal a pregnant lady. A single poke from Rowina’s finger makes the whole thing teeter, which suggests that it contains no pregnant lady, and that it’s made out of extremely light material, probably sheets of balsa. So where is Margaux?

Gavin shoves the magician and he tumbles over an adirondack chair, laughing as he goes down. Kelsey cries out, and she gets in front of Gavin. She slaps Gavin across the face. He takes an aggressive step toward her, and I move in. I hold him back from Kelsey. I feel tall. My arms are strong. Rowina looks concerned, and takes her phone out of her pocket like maybe she is considering calling for help.

“This is a fucking joke,” Kelsey says. I’m not sure if she’s talking about Margaux’s disappearance, or the fact that she just slapped Gavin, or the entire kids-party concept.

“Bitch—” Gavin says. I shake him and he stops talking.

“We’re going to find Margaux and it’s going to be fun,” she says. Mumbles from Kelsey’s friends around us. People open new drinks and start to mill about. I release Gavin and he checks behind the balsa-wood chamber door, then tips the thing over. It barely makes a sound as it hits the grass. Somebody looks under a rock, and this makes someone else laugh. The Margaux hunt has begun, and that’s when we realize Ozlo has disappeared as well. The adirondack chair is on its side, and one velvet glove is pinned beneath it, as though it could not come along when he evaporated.

Rowina points at the bulkhead to the basement, behind Ozlo’s platform. Ajar. I throw the doors open, and the clanging of metal gathers the attention of the entire party. Kelsey leads the way. Rowina takes my hand and we step into the darkness. Everyone follows.

My mom used to make extensive To-Do lists for me. This, her final hobby. She was on heavy pain meds by then, and half the things on the list were nonsensical. She always insisted that I should tend the garden that we did not have. Also: alphabetize library and skim pool and return movies. No basis in reality. But she would also include clean basement, which was interpretable, though vague enough to be ignored. Like, did she want me to cart away the worn doors of yesteryear piled by the boiler? Or to brave the cobwebbed crawl space to extract the moldy rolls of carpeting? Or the rusted out file cabinets? The million cardboard boxes? The water-damaged books? The warped stacks of vinyl? I don’t think I ever even unlocked the basement door to try.

But here we are now, Kelsey in front me, Rowina and the others behind, navigating the clutter. I flip a switch. One lightbulb tries to turn on, pops, and goes dark. Light from the open bulkhead will have to be enough. We can’t turn back now because we hear moans.

Rowina has her arm around Gavin now, as he cries out for his pregnant wife.

“What is that magician doing to her?” Gavin says to us. He’s desperate, but not enough to follow Kelsey and me through the crawlspace, toward the moans.

He snivels.

Rowina rubs his back.

I follow Kelsey on all fours.


Dust clouds.

I can barely breath.

I scurry over moldy rolls of discarded carpeting. Kelsey hums as she crawls. The crawl space curves right, then left, then down, down. I wonder: how deep do property rights go? When do I cross over from dirt my mother owned into someone else’s domain? She always predicted I would have twins, if I did have kids. She liked the idea of me being a doctor because she said I could deliver my own babies. This, she explained, was a good way to ensure the hospital didn’t swap them out with someone else’s children. She held suspicions when it came to medical professionals. She liked that I could be her insider.

The only light I can see comes from Kelsey’s phone in front of me. It tumbles when she spills out of the crawl space, and I follow without waiting.

In the white glow of her phone: a chamber, and Margaux in labor on the packed dirt floor.

“The baby,” Margaux cries. “Please.” Kelsey holds her phone high, lighting the space. I’m disturbed that Margaux had been lying here in the dark.

“We’ve got to get her out of here,” I say to Kelsey. Then I yell the same thing back through the crawl space. The shadows seem to swallow the sound. I can’t hear the others. It’s just me, Kelsey, and Margaux in labor. She heaves. She shudders. “We need to stand you up,” I say.

Margaux screams, “The baby!”

We lift her dress up above her waist. I take my shirt off and tuck it beneath her, covering the dirt and grime, the husks of dead bugs. I try to think back to my OB-GYN rotation. I remember nothing. My brain is cobwebbed.

“Just keep breathing,” I say, which is a thing I think I’m supposed to say. “Keep panting through the contractions. Push hard, but not too hard. Breathe.”

I don’t know how, but the baby is already crowning. Like, I can see the baby’s head: the smudge of dark hair over a cherry scalp.

“No service, no service,” Kelsey mutters.

“You need to call 911,” I say. “Go out. Get them to call. Go.”

“It’s too late,” Kelsey says. She’s probably right. The baby is coming out. “I’m not leaving.”

I look at her, and that’s when it happens again. She looks nothing like the Kelsey I think I know. It’s hard to make her face out exactly because she holds her camera’s light in front of her, aimed at Margaux. Unlike previous confusions I’ve had with Kelsey, this one connects some synapses deep in my brain. It’s not that she looks unfamiliar; she looks like me.  Not identical, but she could be my sister or cousin or mom. I try to shake this vision from my head. I focus on my hands, making a cradle of them between Margaux’s legs.

The others finally arrive through the crawlspace. First Rowina, then Gavin. The two of them stand sentinel by Margaux’s head. No one has cell service, but no one wants to leave. Others arrive. They gather in a tight circle, adding the glow of their phones. Rowina sparks a lighter.

I have an inkling of what the baby will look like: It will look like me, just like Kelsey looks like me. I’ll be able to hold it up in the chamber, look into its eyes and say, Who wants to meet Grandma? before offering it up to my mother’s ghost.

But of course it doesn’t look like me. Even Gavin and Margaux might prefer that, given what it does look like.

The baby’s head emerges.

It’s face is grim.

It’s skin: pock-marked.

Margaux pushes. Out come the baby’s shoulders, his arms, his hands: one gloved, one not. Margaux pushes harder. The infant slides out into my hands. Nakedness until the feet, which wear black shoes that gleam with placental discharge.

“Now it’s a real kids party,” Ozlo the Omnipotent says, looking up at me.  He lisps because his teeth have not grown in yet. He fiddles with his umbilical cord. Gavin applauds, and then so does everyone else, except me because I’m holding Ozlo’s slippery form.

“You better put me down!” Ozlo whines. But I don’t, so then he pees—the urine arcing straight up from his tiny penis with surprising force, hitting the ceiling of the chamber, knocking loose a shower of dust and dirt that rains down. Everyone dances and laughs under this dark confetti. Everyone waves their lit-up phones. Rowina puts her hand on my shoulder and squeezes. I’m impressed with Ozlo because, when I set him down, he can already dance on his two little feet.

Our phones die one by one and then it’s very dark, except for Ozlo, who emits a reddish, fetal glow. He severs the umbilical cord with his own teeth, which is frightening, but then he makes it up to us, leading the way, scuttling fast from the chamber. We follow his luminescent baby bottom, all of us on our hands and knees, crawling.

The journey out is long. I picture Rowina, crawling behind me, and her view is nothing but my haunches. Behind her, surely, is Kelsey, and then friends and friends and friends.

So, look Mom! Here in this tunnel, I have all the ingredients of a good life. A short list you could fit on a cocktail card. 

We crawl. I fantasize about hibachi and weddings. Ozlo the baby grows older in front of me, and my life is the sort of magic that works even if you don’t believe.

Ben Powell lives and teaches in Worcester, Massachusetts. His work has appeared in the Nashville Review, Sierra Nevada Review, Hypertext Magazine, and others.

Nicholas C Casciano has been drawing for over fifty years and during his professional career served as the founder of a first-of-its-kind multimedia production center within a Fortune 500 company. Born without depth perception, he has refused to accept his visual limits and lives by the mantra “talent survives.”