When Jerome’s father died, his mother started visiting mediums and spiritualists, and Jerome would come along and sit in the room while his father’s messages were conveyed to the land of the living. This was the beginning of his interest in crystal balls, velvet cushions, bright scarves, and other accoutrements of magic. Before he was even a teenager, Jerome knew that communication with the dead was a confidence game, one that he would never play. But he had taught himself card tricks and the art of palming a coin. He entertained his friends by cutting and restoring ropes or making water poured into a cone of paper disappear.
Girls liked the tricks. It didn’t hurt that he was handsome, that his long-fingered hands were pleasant to look at, that he knew how to smile for everyone the smile that was meant just for them. He earned his college tuition money by doing magic shows at parties, and then developed a routine of cabinet tricks with his pretty girlfriend. They performed at the local arts center and drew big enough crowds to earn the interest of a booking agent. They did variations of Assistant’s Revenge, Mismade Girl, and the Cabinet Escape.
After one show, a man came backstage to say that it wasn’t a bad show, but that with a little thought, it could be great. The man was none other than Vaclav Storek, the Storek, who turned out to have retired with a few untried ideas. His suggestions made possible all sorts of novelties, including a variation of the Mismade Girl using an additional pretty assistant. One girl dressed all in green, the other in purple, and when the cabinet sections were moved and the divided girls restored, the assistants both wore a mix of green and purple as if they had been scrambled and reassembled in a new configuration of parts.
Storek taught Jerome the really big tricks, and together they developed illusions that hadn’t been imagined yet by anyone else. The act appeared on the late-night television shows, then on hour-long network specials. Jerome always acknowledged Storek’s contributions at the end of each show, called him a great teacher and master of masters. “There is still one secret I haven’t shown you yet,” Storek would say.
The old man died without showing him the final secret. The show went on. Jerome worked his way through a great many beautiful assistants and finally married one. He started a family. His permanent show in Las Vegas and the occasional television special kept the money flowing in. “As if by magic,” he liked to say.
He had everything. The house, the cars, the wife, the new pretty assistants. Applause from a packed house for five shows a week. Everything.
He drank. He lingered in his dressing room with a bottle longer and longer after each performance. He had built his life on illusion, which meant that he saw through illusions better than most people. Applause no longer fed him. Money was numbers written on ephemeral paper. His wife was getting older, and even if he divorced her for a younger woman, that wouldn’t buy him any more time as a young man. Some nights he would not emerge from his dressing room until everyone else had gone. He would turn on the one spot for the center of the stage, roll the great black and gold cabinet into the light, and open the door to look at the darkness inside. Someday he would enter that darkness. Someday, he would leave everything behind.
One night, Jerome not only drank, but took pills. Not enough to do him harm, he thought, but he staggered on his way to the technician’s controls for the lights. He stumbled as he made his way to the stage. His ears buzzed. For a moment, he thought he heard voices, but he was alone.
He rolled the cabinet into its position under the spotlight. He opened the door and peered into the blackness. He got in. He crouched down, then curled himself into the fetal position. In some places, they buried the dead curled up like this. He exhaled and did not inhale immediately, experimenting with what it was like not to breathe. This was the one real thing. Everything pointed to this.
“Yes,” said the unmistakable voice of Storek in his ear. “The last secret.”
Stories by Bruce Holland Rogers have won two Micro Awards, two World Fantasy Awards, and two Nebula Awards. He teaches writing at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts MFA program.