Lewis Brett Smiler lives in West Orange, NJ, and enjoys creative writing and historical research. Some of his stories have been published online in Jewish Magazine.
At ten years old, Ryan Thorpe was a master of illusion. With fast hands and a contagious smile, the budding magician could easily amaze anyone. The magic act had given Ryan a new identity, a way to connect with people. His mother often said that it made his shyness disappear. Ryan was now a star attraction at birthday parties, performing for small but enthusiastic audiences. Everyone was dazzled as the magician made pencils levitate and handkerchiefs knot themselves together.
He could not wait to perform at the church talent show next Saturday afternoon. With more than one hundred people watching, it would be his largest audience to date. The magician spent countless hours practicing for this momentous event, possibly the most important day of his life. His mother was continually amazed at his dedication, wishing only that Ryan would give the same attention to his homework. He wanted to wave his wand and make his homework disappear, but that was one power he did not have.
Ryan also did not have the power to make the unpaid bills disappear. A magician never reveals his secrets, and Ryan was hoping that nobody in school would learn about his mother’s growing debts. Yet, when he attended school in thrift shop attire, the truth was difficult to hide. Bullies Keith and Scott showed up Monday morning on their flashy new bikes, and Ryan could tell from the smirks on their faces that trouble was brewing.
“I hear that you make coins appear out of nowhere,” said Scott. “What about dollars? Can you make those appear, too?”
“Your mom can’t pay the bills,” said Keith. “Why don’t you conjure up money for her? Don’t you want to help her out?” Keith and Scott continued to pester Ryan about paying the bills with magic. He tried his best to ignore them, but it was not so easy.
“Hey, Ryan, I know why you can’t conjure up money,” said Keith. “It’s because you don’t have any real power. You’re a phony.”
“Is that true, Ryan?” asked Scott. “Is it all phony magic?” Before Ryan knew it, Keith and Scott had devised a brand new chant. “Phony Ryan. Phony Ryan.” Their friend Josh joined them as they repeated those words over and over again. Ryan had never felt so furious. He could not wait for school to end so he could get away from those jerks. Nobody would be able to bother Ryan in the peace and quiet of his home but, even when he was alone in his bedroom, the words continued to echo in his head.
Ryan tried to practice for the talent show, only it was becoming harder to focus. “Phony Ryan. Phony Ryan.” The voices of his enemies remained quite vivid. Ryan wished that he could wave his wand and make Keith and the others disappear, but that was not possible. The ten-year-old knew that he would be facing Keith and the gang again tomorrow. Ryan would be facing them every day at school until the talent show.
He tried to clear his mind of painful thoughts and kept reminding himself that his act was already a proven success. Ryan recalled performing at one party where half the audience did not know English. It was barely an obstacle for Ryan, as magic was his language. Some children wanted to try on Ryan’s top hat, thinking it would give them magical powers. Suppose they found out that the hat was a prop? “Phony Ryan. Phony Ryan.” Those dreadful words crept back into Ryan’s head again. There must be some way to remove them. The magician hated his classmates with such passion. Two years ago, Ryan had suffered severe pain after breaking his leg in a bicycle accident. He wished he could wave his wand and inflict that same pain on Keith and his gang.
It was Friday afternoon, one day before the talent show. “Phony Ryan. Phony Ryan.” Those words were still lodged in Ryan’s head. The magician had been fighting a losing battle with anxiety. How many people in the audience would see him as a fake? More than ever, Ryan wished he had real magical powers and did not need to rely on tricks. He was on his way to his room when his mother pulled him aside. She was probably going to remind him about his homework.
“Ryan, is everything okay?” Mom asked.
“Everything is fine.”
“No, everything is not,” Mom replied. “I’ve been watching you these past few days and I can tell when something is wrong.”
“Nothing is wrong,” said Ryan.
“Do you know what I enjoy most about your magic act? I enjoy that great big smile, but this week, I’ve been watching that smile disappear. I know that something is wrong.” Ryan took a deep breath. He wished his mother would leave him alone.
“Are Keith and Scott bothering you again?” she asked. “If anyone is bothering you, I need to know . . .”
“Nobody is bothering me!”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I am sure. I just wish we had more money.”
“I know, Ryan,” Mom replied. “I know it’s been hard. Just remember, we’re not the only people struggling right now. Our country is going through a rough time and many people are unemployed . . .”
“When will the jobs be coming back?”
“I don’t know, Ryan. I don’t think anyone knows. But our country has gone through rough times before. Remember, your grandparents had to live through the Great Depression. It was worse than this, but America recovered and the jobs came back. You need to be patient and have faith.” Ryan wanted so much to have faith, but it was becoming harder each day. Money was becoming increasingly scarce, and now his mother was struggling to pay for groceries. Ryan wondered if they might be eating in a soup kitchen soon. The very thought made him tremble. If people saw him at the soup kitchen, they would know that he was a charity case and had no real magic. Ryan could forget his whole future as a magician.
That night, Ryan dreamed that he was a superstar performing before thousands and thousands of people. He was able to saw people in half and walk through concrete walls, although the audience was unimpressed. Everyone was shouting, “Phony Ryan. Phony Ryan.” It seemed as if the world had nothing better to do than heckle him. Their yelling was so loud that it almost made the magician deaf, but it was soon drowned out by the ringing of his alarm clock. Ryan woke up to the morning sunlight, relieved that it was all a nightmare. But could this nightmare become a reality? In a few hours, the magician was expected at the church to prepare for the talent show. He had never felt so terrified before. Ryan was not sure if he would be able to perform.
Mom kept telling Ryan at breakfast that he had nothing to worry about. She insisted that his act would be a huge success but that he needed to smile. What would it take to bring that smile back? The magician donned his top hat and looked at himself in the mirror. He always looked so sharp in that hat. Before Ryan knew it, it was time to leave for the church.
“I can’t remember the last time I’ve been this excited,” Mom said. “You never know who might be in the audience . . . Ryan, why are you standing there? It’s time to get in the car.”
“Yes, I know,” Ryan replied. “Just give me a moment . . .” The magician wanted so much to get into the car, but this one simple action had suddenly become impossible. “Phony Ryan. Phony Ryan.” He was breathing very hard.
“Ryan, are you okay?”
“I can’t go on,” said Ryan.
“Yes, you can . . . you’re going to be the star of the show . . .”
“I’m not doing the show!” The magician went to his room and removed his top hat. All those hours of hard work and practice had gone to waste.
Ryan and his mother were having their first dinner at the soup kitchen. It was such a crowded place. The ten-year-old could not believe how many people were out of work. Since missing the talent show last week, he had not touched any of his tricks. Ryan was no longer going to waste his time pretending he was a magician. So many families were struggling to get food on the table, and phony magic was not going to help them.
Ryan was finishing up his meatloaf when he felt someone grabbing his arm. He recognized the culprit as six-year-old Michael. The last time Ryan performed at a party, Michael had been sitting only a few inches away.
“Are you Ryan the magician?” asked Michael.
“Can you perform some magic for us?” Ryan took a deep breath. “Can we see some magic?” Michael asked again. “Please!”
“I’m really busy right now . . . I’m sorry.” A look of sadness emerged on Michael’s face as he walked away. It was quite a large frown and would keep Ryan awake all during the night. He had never imagined that he could hurt someone so much with a few simple words. Why was he so cold towards Michael? What should he have said? How could he explain to Michael that he was no longer a magician? These questions continued to torment Ryan hour after hour.
Ryan remembered the birthday party where he first met Michael. The six-year-old was not much of a talker, but his gigantic smile was hard to forget. As Ryan remained a prisoner of insomnia, he could not help but feel a longing to see that smile again. Perhaps he could entertain Michael with a few magic tricks, but where could he go to perform for Michael? The soup kitchen was definitely not a good venue. People there would see Ryan as a charity case, not a magician. Ryan kept telling himself that Michael still saw him as a magician and that was all that mattered.
The next evening, Ryan showed up at the soup kitchen wearing his top hat and carrying a bag of tricks. The crowd was larger than yesterday, but he had no trouble spotting Michael eating with his family. As Ryan was walking over, someone else caught his eye. Keith was eating with his parents only a few tables away. The magician had never expected to see him at the soup kitchen. “Phony Ryan. Phony Ryan.” Those terrible words were in Ryan’s head again, but he must not let them take over. Magicians must always be stronger than bullies. Ryan took one last look at Keith but quickly shifted his eyes back towards Michael.
“Ryan the magician reporting for duty,” he said.
“You’re wearing your hat today!” replied Michael. “Dad said that you couldn’t perform yesterday because you didn’t have your hat.”
“Your Dad was right. But now I have my hat, my wand, and my bag of enchantment. If you can just follow me to the corner there, the show is about to start!”
Michael and his friends watched with amazement as Ryan performed one incredible feat after another. Before long, other people from the soup kitchen were gathering around to watch. They were all mesmerized as Ryan made pencils levitate and handkerchiefs knot themselves together. Ryan himself was amazed at how quickly his audience grew. He wondered if Keith was watching but did not see him in the crowd. Instead, all that the magician could see were many families exhibiting enormous smiles. He never imagined that he would be the star attraction at a soup kitchen, but the reason was becoming very clear. Ryan had the power to spread joy, and that was certainly no illusion.