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About the Author
Melanie Tem's novels are PRODIGAL (recipient of the Bram Stoker
Award for Superior Achievement, First Novel), BLOOD MOON,
WILDING, REVENANT, DESMODUS, THE TIDES, BLACK RIVER, and, in
collaboration with Nancy Holder, MAKING LOVE and WITCH-LIGHT.
Several dozen of her short stories have appeared in anthologies
and magazines, and she has published numerous non-fiction
Tem also was awarded the 1991 British Fantasy Award, the Icarus
for Best Newcomer.
Also a social worker, she lives in Denver with her husband,
writer and editor Steve Rasnic Tem. They have four children and
Psychic Magic Show
by Melanie Tem
He awoke, and his dream was gone. He'd been tricked again.
His despair was still there, and the sensation of being one step further removed from any world that could be called real. By now both the despair and the alienation were almost completely detached from any putative causechemical imbalance, inherent temperament, a madness gene, even the all but magical disappearance from his life of the few people he might have cared about, starting with his parents shortly after his birth. The panic that always propelled him, like a gun out of which might come either a rose or a bullet, was intact. But the dream had vanished.
Remembering his dreams had never been a problem until Sheila had asked him to; forgetting them had been the hard part, and distinguishing between dreams and "reality," and caring about the alleged difference. Had he dreamed the man in the tall hat who'd made his mother disappear like a trick coin? Was there a meaningful distinction between the puff of smoke in which his father had gone up, at the feet of the beautiful spangled lady, and smoke from fire that would really burn?
So when he came suddenly and fully awake that Thursday morning, knowing he'd had a dream worth taking to Sheila and unable to remember a single detail, he suspected a trick. He lay there a while in foolhardy hope, and was finally driven from bed by the conviction that if he'd only awakened a split second earlier he'd have pulled something out of something else into consciousness.
By the time he got to Sheila's office for his 4:00 appointment, he was thoroughly anxious and depressed. Bitterly he told himself, and resolved to tell her just as bitterly, that at least this gave them something to talk about for fifty minutes.
Maybe Sheila could write a professional paper on "Induced Dreamlessness as a Therapeutic Technique." Though Colin took pains to scoff at the notion that she was responsible for his dearth of dreams, he couldn't entirely dispel it. Sheila was not what she seemed. Neither was he; nothing was. She was as likely to want to hurt as to help him, and for reasons equally arcane. It would be easy to mistake either for the other.
"Why don't you try writing down your dreams," she'd suggested when he'd complained they weren't getting anywhere in therapy. "Bring them in next time and we'll see where they take us."
As if she'd invited him to choose a card, any card, when he knew whatever he chose was irrelevant, he'd parried, "I don't believe in dreams." She'd chuckled noncommittally and raised her eyebrows, waiting for him to elaborate, another invitation he'd tried but failed to resist. "They could mean anything anybody wants them to mean. They're just psychic flotsam and jetsam. An optical illusion of the mind's eye."
This time her laugh had been appreciative. "That's great, Colin. I like that." Her approval gave him pleasure, which he knew to mistrust. When she'd gone on in quite another tone, he'd decided that it was actually something else anyway. "But, you know, illusions aren't all bad. Illusions can tell us things that nothing else can."
He didn't know why he kept seeing her. She wasn't, by a long shot, his first therapist, nor was she likely to be his last. He was bothered by the persistent feeling that she wasn't divulging everything she knew about him, or that he wasn't. More often than not, he felt worse after a session than before, which was saying something. She must be getting frustrated, too; he certainly wasn't improving, by any measurehappiness, rationality, functionality. Increasingly he was having trouble keeping track of whether he'd bathed, eaten, turned lights off and on. He hardly left the house anymore except to see Sheila.
It was true that they usually didn't have to search for things to talk about. Colin found his own frantically kaleidoscopic mental landscape, if often baffling and painful, also endlessly interesting, and Sheila seemed to agree; away from her, he supposed peevishly that she took the same degree of interest in all her clients, but in person he fell sufficiently under the spell of her attentiveness to be surprised and more than a little offended when she told him their time was up. On the other hand, there'd been entire sessions when he'd sat in grimly apathetic silence, and she hadn't pushed him, hadn't fidgeted or taken notes or otherwise betrayed restlessness, had simply sat waiting in the comfortable chair not too close to and not too far from the one just like it he was sitting in; those sessions had stretched and contorted like escape artists. If he hadn't been watching her every move, Colin would have suspected her of re-setting the clock each time, either forward or backward, though he couldn't think why she'd want to do that.
Sheila was neither particularly self-revelatory nor notably guarded; despite himself, he'd picked up a few bits of information about her. He didn't want to know about her sex life, for Chrissake, or whether she got along with her parents, or what her favorite food wasthough once she had mentioned dinner plans so he couldn't help being aware of her fondness for Thai food. He also couldn't escape knowing that she had a pet rabbit, because for a while she'd been bringing it into the office in its cage, ugly smelly evil-eyed thing; sometimes, the cage was empty. Or that she drove a Dodge minivan, because he'd inadvertently seen her getting out of it once when he'd arrived a few minutes early. He had no context within which to fit these minutiae, and decidedly did not want one.
The most curious thing he knew about her, and fervently wished he didn't, was that she was an amateur magician. One shelf of her bookcase was filled with books about conjuring, illusion, sleight of hand, thaumaturgy; their proximity to books about self-actualization and the DSM IV was jarring. She even put on shows, for kids' birthday parties and, lately, in a lower-downtown coffeehouse. Her act was billed, to Colin's mind unbecomingly, as "The Psychic Magic Show." The flyers promised she could read your mind.
Colin didn't approve of a therapist also being an illusionist; you ought to be able to trust your therapist. This seemed such a silly discomfiture, probably symptomatic of some diagnosis, that he didn't act on it or even bring it up with her. But he had no intention of attending The Psychic Magic Show, no matter how often she invited him. "I think you'd enjoy it. You might find it useful." Not likely.
Resentfully he waited in her faux-friendly waiting room which she shared with an accountant, a computer graphics company, and some guy who yelled on the phone about construction projects, hearty and reasonable words belied by the furious volume and tone of his voice and the way he slammed the phone down between calls. A gray couch, two chairs with the same gray upholstery, outdated newsmagazines on a nondescript tablenothing to hint that either a therapist or a magician worked here.
Colin tried his best not to notice Sheila's other clients, but his best wasn't good enough. He presumed he was her last appointment of the day, since he'd never crossed paths with anybody coming in after him. For a while, her 3:00 had been a portly middle-aged man with an apparently vast wardrobe of plaid flannel shirts, but that one had disappearedcured, Colin supposed, or dematerializedand now in that time slot was a woman whose hair color and voice and clothing style and way of carrying herself were never the same but who was in fact, Colin had determined, the same person from week to week, at least as much as he was. She hurried past him now, showing evidence of having been crying.
Colin pretended to read the newspaper. When Sheila came out to get him he nodded and signalled with an uplifted hand that he'd heard her, but before following her into the inner office he took a minute to finish the article about mutual fundsnot that he had any reason to retain the information, but for the effect. Even if she didn't say anything, she would take note.
Sheila was wearing scarves today, a white silk tucked like a cravat into the neck of her blouse, three of them around her heademerald green, scarlet, and goldand an indigo silk bracelet twisted and tied onto each wrist. They must be hiding something. Unwillingly Colin thought of cancer and chemotherapy, of bruises from domestic violence. For all he knew, she could be fighting for her life in any of a myriad of ways.
As he crossed her threshold he was, as usual, checking out the room he was entering, under cover of movements he hoped were casual and ordinary. The fact that he'd never found a black thread across the doorway, a loose floorboard over a secret compartment, a hat with a false bottom, didn't mean such devices weren't here.
On the desk in front of her this time was a narrow rectangular pocketbook with a mirror in it. She must have been touching up her make-up, which struck Colin as highly unprofessional. An oval of light from the window reflected on her mouth and chin before she looked up at him, smiled, and snapped the compact shut.
"I didn't bring any dreams," he announced defiantly. "I didn't remember any all week."
There was a pause, and then Sheila came out from behind the desk. As she passed him, her hand brushed his neck under his ear, and Colin flinched. They'd never touched before, even to shake hands.
She settled herself into the other armchair, which Colin noticed for the first time was set at a canny angle to his so they weren't facing quite squarely. She was holding a pink rose, the bloom like a third thumbnail, the stem slightly longer than her index finger. He couldn't tell whether it was real, silk, or plastic, a prop of some kind, an instrument, a distraction, a decoration.
"Where'd you get that?" he demanded, much more directly than either of them was used to.
She hesitated, as if striving to be both honest and kind, which was a ruse. "You gave it to me, Colin,' she told him gently.
That wasn't true, of course. But an unwise part of him was willing to suspend disbelief in order to see what would happen next.
"Did you think maybe I found it behind your ear just now?" She raised the rose in his direction, a salute, and smiled at him in an impish manner that he found quite inappropriate. "It's just an ordinary rose, Colin," she admonished, and suddenly he knew the fragrance of roses had been in his dream last night, dew on roses, thorns. The spangled lady and tall-hatted man of his infancy must have used roses, too.
With care so ostentatious it must be for the purpose of misdirecting his attention, Sheila slid the stem of the small pink rose into a thin white ceramic vase Colin, appallingly, hadn't noticed when he'd come in. In an arrangement on a low corner table, along with two tall red candles in pewter candlesticks and a fanned-out deck of ornate playing cards, the vase already held several other roses of various hues. From her other clients, Colin presumed. Which one from the weeping shape-changing woman, which from the invisible plaid-shirted man? Colin flushed and looked away.
Sheila sat down, then quite unexpectedly leaned toward him, a palm-sized notebook and a felt-tip pen in her outstretched hand. Not having seen her pick them up anywhere, he had a moment of intense puzzlement, approaching wonder, over their origin, deciding finally that there must be a secret pocket in her suit jacket or inside the arm of the chair. Maybe next time he'd make it a point to sit there and see what her reaction would be.
"Here, let's try something." She was wiggling the pad and pen at him, obviously wanting him to take them. He didn't. People could try to give you shit but you didn't have to accept it. She went ahead with instructions, as if he would collaborate. "Sometimes it's easier to draw things than to talk about them."
When he still made no move to take the pen and notepad, she laid them on his chair, gave his thigh an offensive, familiar pat, and sat back. She took up a fat black marker and a sheet of poster board, larger and sturdier than his note paper, which she laid across her knees.
"I like to see what comes into my mind while the other person is drawing." Sheila's head was already bent over the blank white cardboard, her marker uncapped and poised. "Don't let me see what you're doing, by the way. It's distracting."
Stalwartly, daringly, he shot back, "I'm not doing this. This is nothing but a stupid gimmick."
For a short time they sat quietly, though not in the least companionably. Determined to give her nothing to work with, Colin struggled to blank his mind; failing that, he deliberately fuzzed up every image that presented itself, and resisted allowing any of them names that might give her something to hook onto.
After a while Sheila hunched over, elbows on knees and fingertips against forehead in a great show of mental concentration. Colin wondered if in that position she could read some clue or code written on her palms, then reminded himself he'd have to be an accomplice in the deception in order for that to work. She took a breath and began to draw. The squeaking of the marker across the poster board and its sharp petroleum odor jangled his nerves.
She worked quickly and when she was finished said nothing, just held up the poster board for him to view. He didn't get his eyes shut soon enough. His parents were there on that white surface, stick figures, and two others behind them, one wearing a tall hat and the other, long spangled gloves. Around the four figures she'd drawn a frame of sorts, a box.
"Who are these people, Colin?" she asked him gently. The gentleness was a decoy, but he found himself answering, "My parents. And the magicians who took them away."
"Colin." She was leaning toward him, still holding the poster as if about to stick her head through it. "Let's talk about what really happened to your parents."
"How would you know?"
"I have your records. From the hospital and the school. Your parents abandoned you, Colin. They left you. There's nothing magic about that. It's a terrible, cruel thing to do to a child, but really quite straightforward."
Colin tossed the notepad at her like a flat stone, the pen hooked across it lengthwise. The missile fell short, bouncing against her chair and onto the floor. She hardly glanced at it. He was nearly shouting. "I didn't draw anything! I don't dream! Nothing's a secret anymore because everything is!" He drew up his knees and wrapped his arms around them, to make himself smaller and more solid. The upholstered arms of the chair were as high as its back, but it was still open in the front.
She regarded him with a solicitude that made him squirm. "You're really in a box, aren't you, Colin?" He heard himself sniveling.
A fourth soft wall had risen in front of his folded feet, forming a hollow cube around him. This, he realized, was why he came to see Sheila; the hope of this. Through his relief, he reasoned that there must be a false bottom in the chair and an activating lever somewhere that Sheila had pushed.
She was leaning over him, backlit, scarves floating dramatically around her. She lowered something thick and heavy, like a square couch pillow, over the open top of the box he sat in. At first this lid was edged unevenly by light from the surrounding room, but Sheila settled it into place and the interior went completely dark. Colin's anxiety subsided, replaced by gratitude and a willingness to go along with her.
The padded box bounced and tipped as something was fastened around it, first one way and then the other; he identified clanging and thick swishing sounds as chain and leather. The upholstered walls on either side of him gave a little when he pressed his elbows outward, but nothing opened up. He couldn't extend his arms upward very far, and his fists, at an awkward angle, hardly made an indentation in the slab over his head.
He heard a faint drum roll. Sheila was clearly playing to an audience when she declaimed from somewhere above and behind him, "How will Colin break free? How long will it take him to escape? What price is he willing to pay for his freedom?"
If she threw him into a river, he would surely drown. If she left him alone and went home for the night, he would suffocate. If he tried to fight his way out, he'd likely break a bone or pull a muscle or bring on a heart attack.
Or, he might fall asleep. He might dream. He might put on the spangles and the tall black hat.
"Oh, my!" Sheila's voice exuded the false heartiness of a carnival barker. "He's stuck! He can't get out by himself! Good thing I'm here to assist him!"
After a long moment there came a thin buzzing sound, from the other side of the wall just at his left temple, and within seconds the shiny tip of a saw blade poked through, coming fast.
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