Maggie stood under a hundred eyes, every single one of them looking for a tell or a break, and all of them experts as far as reviews were concerned. She had nothing to hide behind, no props, no water tank, not even a cape. Just her, in a leotard on a stage, under scrutiny and in the light.
She showed them her hands, ungloved, manicured, clumsy. She stepped forward, waiting for silence, waiting for the coughs to die down, the smoke to settle; stepped until she could see them through the light, indistinct faces, unimpressed. How many magicians had they seen already? At least six today, lucky seven, on the same stage, under the same lights. At least a hundred this season, watching from overpriced seats that told them when to applaud, when to boo, watching through the camera lens that lingered over Maggie’s stockinged legs.
She wished she’d worn a cape. Or a skirt. Anything really except skintight nothing. But she couldn’t – that would be to hide, to give them a pocket to find the trick. No, everything had to be on display. Open.
“But when is it real?” Maggie had asked her mentor almost half a decade ago.
Agnes was the best of them, known for magic, real magic. Even decades after she’d left the stage she could spark a flame with a click, so long as the sound rang clear. Maggie had never been sure how she’d gotten her attention, but she didn’t dare ask.
“Maybe it never will be,” Agnes had answered, climbing the stage with slow, groaning knees. She waved her hand, a slow back and forth, and a bouquet of henbane flowers bloomed in her palm. She handed them to Maggie; they were still damp from the ground, their petals dewy. “Do you know how long it took me to learn that?”
“A month?” Agnes had given her the thin, mocking smile saved for when Maggie was being particularly stupid, and Maggie flushed. “Two months?”
“A year to build the garden, two months to learn the trick, then I had hair, makeup, clothes, venues, advertising. All for a trick that ends in a heartbeat. But it’s a good trick, brings them in by the dozens, all certain they can crack it if they look close enough. The minute they doubt that, it becomes magic. Half a second and it gets them in. And more than that, you get yourself out.”
“But when is it real?” Maggie pressed. She had seen Agnes get ready, there were no hidden pockets, no sleeves, no lighter fluid. Just flowers and flames from her fingertips.
“When you believe it as much as they do,” Agnes had answered.
Maggie hadn’t believed, not truly, not really, but they all did. The hundreds watching. She could see it in their faces, see it through the camera lens, next month when it goes live, and after. They would keep believing it. She stepped back into the spotlight, let them see her, leotard and nothing else. When she pulled the dove from the cards, it wasn’t sleight of hand, it wasn’t a flourish to distract. It was real, and she believed it was real, and, finally, she was a magician.
That was the picture she would post to her website, the dove from the cards, real magic.