Pack of playing cards

Great Scott

by

Cole Parker

No one wants to think of himself as a nerd or a loser in high school, but facts are facts and facing them, while hard, is necessary if one wants to develop any character at all. So, here it is: I’m a nerd. A nerd with special needs, to be more accurate.

I don’t do well in social situations, intermixing with strangers and chatting easily with people; I’m always on the outside, looking in. Always wanting to be part of things. Always wanting what seems to come so naturally to the other kids. Always wanting.

The thing I’ve wanted most is to be comfortable in my own skin; that I wasn’t didn’t only come from being shy and awkward. A lot of it came because I was 14, would be 15 in a few months, and I hadn’t really started puberty yet. This is a problem when you’re a freshman in high school. If you look and sound like a middle-schooler, well, you just don’t fit in and can be mistreated by those whose minds run that way. What I really needed, my special need, was to be as normal as the rest of the guys my age, and I wasn’t.

My doctor said I was on the cusp, that I certainly would begin the process in the next several months, and he said he understood my frustrations and anxieties. He even said he’d write me an excuse from participating in gym if showering there was a huge problem for me psychologically.

It would have been, except at our school a lot of the kids showered in their underwear or jock, then took that off under a towel and put it in a plastic bag to take home. I certainly wasn’t the only modest freshman there. I was pretty sure I was the smallest, however. Where it counted.

I was ashamed of how I looked, but at least the reason for my shame—that I was totally undeveloped in those parts where no boy wants to be undeveloped—weren’t on display. I’m not sure how I could have handled it otherwise.

But, besides that, I wasn’t just uncomfortable with my body, I was uncomfortable in social groups, too. I didn’t have the gift of small talk. I always knew exactly what to say—about two minutes after it had to be said. The quick comeback, the witty rejoinder, the smart-aleck putdown—I had them all stuck in the back of my head, never seeing the light of day because I wasn’t quick enough on the draw. Well, partly because of that, and partly because even when I did think of them fast enough, it takes courage to say something challenging, something a little edgy, and nerds generally don’t have that courage. If they did, they wouldn’t be nerds.

So, I did what nerds do. I became interested in things I could do on my own, all by myself. There are lots of things like that. Models, electric trains, video games—although moms can get quite provoked if you spend too much time playing them—stamp collecting, stock-market research, slot cars… The list continues. I chose magic.

I’d always been intrigued by magicians. The magic itself was fascinating, but it was the magicians themselves who caught my imagination and wouldn’t let go. They were so much bigger than life out on the stage, strutting around with all the confidence in the world, showing off like no one’s business, commanding the attention of the audience, totally in control. All the things I could never be in real life.

So maybe part of it was just wishing I were someone else, but the tricks these men did, those I could learn. You know what they say about learning a musical instrument, don’t you? You only need to do three things to learn it well. Those are: practice, practice, and practice. Magic tricks are the same.

So much of magic is sleight of hand. Accompany that with misdirection and you’ve got something going for you. Of course, people know that, and so they stare at your hands like they’re holding the secret to perpetual youth in them, which means you have to be extra-specially good. That’s where all that practice comes in.

I practiced all the time.  I was lucky in that I have fairly large hands with long fingers. That helped. When I started, though, the hands didn’t make any difference. But, with continued effort, I started to see where they would be useful. I kept working at my craft, and I got better.

To practice, I moved coins around between fingers, to the back of my hands, returning them afterwards to the insides of my fingers. I could do this unobserved most anytime. I practiced in my pockets even during classes and in the halls almost unconsciously. One of the things I did was to work with my finger ring, managing finally to take it off without touching it with the other hand, using only the fingers next to it. Things I could do while unnoticed at school, I did. This was easier for me than for most because no one ever paid me any attention. But mostly, when I was at home, I practiced with cards. Sure, I worked with coins and other small objects, too, but card tricks were my specialty.

There are lots and lots of tricks you can do with cards. Some are sleight of hand, some use elements like props you don’t let the spectators know you’re using, some use confederates, some use misdirection. Many of the tricks are totally amazing till you know how they’re done. That’s always a letdown. We all want to think we saw real magic.

I knew how to make a card float above my hand, how to rub my empty hand over a card and change it to a different card, how to predict what card someone will choose, how to make cards vanish and appear in a flash, how to identify the card someone is simply thinking of, how to make a card move through the deck with no one touching it—these and all sorts of other tricks.

All of these had had to be practiced, but I had the time, and I enjoyed thinking about people’s reactions. I didn’t mind the practice and knew without it I could end up looking like a fool. That was a problem for me because I didn’t ever want to look like a fool. So, even with practice, I almost never tried out any of the tricks with real, live audiences.

Except this one time, and that’s where my trouble began.

See, I really wanted to lose the nerd tag. I really wanted to belong. What 14-year-old doesn’t? So I had an internal battle going on. By now, I’d become pretty good at a lot of tricks. But I hadn’t got any better in overcoming my shyness around people. I thought I could probably impress people with some of my tricks, but there was a huge risk involved. If I did impress them, they’d start wanting more—I’ve read magicians’ books that said the crowd always wants more and you have to have something ready that they’ll buy into when you want to stop so they don’t get hostile. Some of them would be eager to talk to me, beset with my shyness. What would happen then?  I’d become decent with my fingers; my tongue hadn’t learned a thing.

So I battled with myself, and then—well, no reason to include a  long introduction here. This is how it all played out.
I’d brought a pack of cards with me to school that day. I’d seen other kids in the cafeteria playing cards during lunch, and none of the proctors seemed to mind. I got my food and sat at a table for two as always, and as always it was only half occupied. I ate quickly, then took out my deck and started manipulating it, not doing anything special, not doing anything to attract attention, just practicing with it. Handling cards deftly is very important to a magician.

I was cutting one-handed, trying to cut specific fractions of the deck each time, when Bonnie Farquar, a girl who knew who I was, stopped and looked at me for a moment, then asked,

“What are you doing?”

“Cutting the exact number of cards I want to cut by the feel. See, I’ll try to cut 28 cards.” I put the stack together, then cut it and counted off the cards in the top half. “ …twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight. Perfect! I got it right that time.”

“Wow! That looks difficult. Can you do any tricks?”

I should have done anything, anything at all, other than what I did.

“Yeah, a couple. I’m just learning, though. Not that good at it.” That was just the way I was. I actually thought I was pretty decent at a lot of tricks. But there was no way I could say so.

“Let me see one.”

Now, with many tricks, you have to set them up in advance. You have to have the deck set or props in place or at least know what you’re going to do. I’d just been practicing cuts. I wasn’t ready for anything. But, Bonnie was talking to me. That rarely ever happened. Not like this, at least, one-on-one with no adult around encouraging it.

“Well…” I said.

“Oh, come on. Show me one.”

I knew then that one wouldn’t be enough. If I agreed to do one, I’d have to do two. If I agreed to two, I’d have to do three. So what I did next was smart. Really smart. Except I might have been better off not doing it. I might have been better off just saying no.

I looked at her—met her eyes, which wasn’t easy for me. She was pretty, a popular girl, and a senior, while I was a freshman. That was one of the reasons she’d been so comfortable talking to me in the first place. I’d never have been able to go talk to her like she did to me. But I met her eyes. “I’ll show you two, if you’ll promise that’s all. I’m only good at these two, and I’ll be embarrassed if you ask for more.”

Magicians lie a lot, but it’s part of their effect. It’s OK.

As I was looking at her, she was looking at me, and I guess she saw something that made her agree. I don’t know what it was, but she said OK.

Now I had to come up with two spur-of-the-moment tricks. Well, that wasn’t that hard; I knew and had worked on almost fifty of them. While I’d been talking to her, I’d been continuing my one hand cutting and fiddling with the deck. Without her noticing, I managed to flip over the card on the bottom of the deck so its face was against the face of the card above it.

“OK,” I said. I fanned the deck out, face down, keeping the bottom card from fanning out, and told her to take a card out but not look at it. She did, and I closed the deck, then lowered it into my lap just far enough so I could turn it over. The top card on the deck was now the card I’d turned over, and so its back was showing.

“Now I want you to peek at the card, making sure you don’t show it to me, but look at it while keeping aware of what if anything I’m doing. Go ahead, peek, but just a big enough peek to know what the card is. Got it? Good. OK, now slide it somewhere into the deck.”

I’d already raised the deck from my lap and was holding it loosely but closed in my left hand. I pushed it out towards her and watched as she managed to insert the card face down into the middle of the closed deck.

Now was the difficult part, for me. I had to turn the deck back over and then either turn over the card which would then be on the bottom or ditch it. In this case, I decided to ditch it. Much easier.

“OK, Bonnie. Your card’s in there somewhere.” I raised the deck a little, then lowered my head and put my ear on it. “Yes, it’s talking to me. Says it wants to get out of where it is, it’s very uncomfortable.”

Bonnie moved her eyes from my hand to my eyes. “Why in the world would it say that?” she asked, laughing, getting into my imaginative game and playing it with me.

“I’ll check,” I said, and put my ear back to it. “Ah,” I said, raising my head and meeting her eyes again. “It says it’s being snubbed by the other cards around it.  It feels shame and abandonment because everyone has turned their backs on it.”

“Huh?”

While she was saying that one word, I innocently changed the deck to my right hand in a way that I turned it over without it being obvious I’d done that. In the process, I managed to drop the bottom card into my lap, opening and closing my legs slightly so the card would fall between them and be trapped there when I closed them again. The backs of the cards in the deck were now facing up.

“I don’t know what that means either, Bonnie. After all, it’s your card. You know it better than I do.”

I grinned, and Bonnie, after hesitating, smiled back. “So,” she asked, “which one is it?”

“This one,” I said, and in a sweeping gesture moving my hand across the table left to right, I spread the entire deck—but for the card in my lap—out on the surface. Her card was the only one that was face up.

“That’s yours, isn’t it?” I kept any smugness out of my voice. I hate smug magicians.

“But…but… how’d you do that?”

“It’s a trick,” I said, and laughed.

“OK, you said you knew two.  Show me the other.”

“All right, but that’s all. OK?”

“OK.”

“I need to straighten up the cards,” I said, and gathered together the spread-out deck of cards, then moved my lunch tray to the side, knocking over the salt shaker in the process and blushing as I brushed the spilled salt away.

“OK, here’s the last one,” I said when I was ready. “Go ahead and take a card and look at it.”

She did, and I placed the rest of the deck on the table. “Now, I said, I want you to put that card in the deck wherever you want. I’ll start removing cards and whenever you say, I’ll stop. Then, just lay your card on the pile. I’ll put the rest of the cards on top of it.”

I held the deck in my left hand and began dealing all the cards into a loose pile on the table. When about half had been dealt,  she said stop and laid her card on the pile. I used my right hand to straighten up the bottom pile, then laid the rest of the cards neatly on top.

“Now,” I said, “I’m about to show you that not only am I the world’s most inexperienced magician, but that in fact you have magical powers that exceed mine. Ready?”

Her eyes were bright. “Yeah,” she said.

“OK. Give the deck three firm, rapid knocks, just like knocking on a door.”

She reached down and did that, and the two halves of the deck slid apart just a little.

“Now,” I said, “if you are as good as I think you are, that’ll be your card on the top.” I pointed to the bottom pile of cards, still face down with the rest of the cards skewed a little to the side on top of it. I reached down and picked it up, showing her the face of the card, and at the same time letting the few grains of salt fall off the back of the card, the grains I’d unobtrusively sprinkled on it while straightening the deck.

She looked at the card, and her eyes opened wide.

I beat her to the punch. “How’d you do that?” I asked in wonderment, eyes wide in amazement.

She turned to me, and her face was alive. “You’re really good, Scotty!” she said.

“Scott,” I said, as was automatic for me by now. “Well, thanks, but I’m just learning. I don’t know much yet.” I blushed, which I hate doing, and looked down.

Just then the five-minute bell rang, and everyone stood up. She looked at me, a little awkwardly, a little bemusedly, and I said, “I’ve got to run,” and began straightening things on the table. She hesitated, then walked away. That was good. I still had a card to recover from between my legs and didn’t want her standing there watching me do it.

OK, that whole deal with Bonnie was because I so wanted to fit in and thought doing it with a magic trick might be a way I could. It was a test with a single person, a way to test myself. Well, it came out OK. I was pleased with the outcome. Maybe I could do this fitting-in thing.

Sometimes we just don’t have any idea at all where the most innocent things can lead.

Playing cards scene break

The very next day at lunch by myself in the cafeteria at ‘my’ table, I was reading. I didn’t want to be seen with a deck of cards every day. I don’t know why; I just didn’t.  Perhaps it was because I didn’t want to be typecast, didn’t want people to think of me—if anyone was unlikely enough to do that—as being one-dimensional. Besides, I liked reading. I was a huge sci-fi fan and was currently reading a book about a boy growing into a man, a powerful man, something that struck close to home with me. The book was The Name Of The Wind and was written by Patrick Rothfuss.

When reading, I get deeply into the images I form from the stories, and I didn’t know how long I’d been immersed when I realized that someone was there at my table. I looked up. A boy who appeared to be a freshmen like me was standing there. He wasn’t quite looking at me. His hands were clasped together at his waist, his shoulders were slightly slumped, and he gave the impression he wanted to be anywhere but standing next to my table.

I knew the feeling well.

“Uh, hi,” I said. Neutrally. As I’ve already explained, loquacious I’m not. I dropped my eyes as soon as I said it.

There was silence for a moment, uncomfortable silence, and then, “I’m Liam.”

Well, that was, uh, what? Didn’t give me much to work with, and if this kid expected me to carry the conversation, well, he had the wrong guy. So I said the minimum, about the best I could do. What I said, after a pause, was, “Liam.” He didn’t answer that, which simply added to the discomfort. I realized, perhaps I should give him my name, too. So I said, “Scott,” and lifted my eyes to his. He was actually looking at me. His eyes were green. I took a moment to actually see him. He was small like me and not bad-looking at all. Like most of us freshmen, he looked like he was something of an unmade bed, something that was in the process of becoming something else. His ears were a bit too big, his chin a bit too small, and he had a thin neck, large Adam’s apple, skinny arms in a too-large shirt—that sort of thing. I found him appealing.

It seemed it was up to him if he wanted to start a conversation. It occurred to me that maybe he was waiting for something from me, but I had no idea what. This is why I hated social situations. I never knew what to do. I was always uncomfortable.

He sort of fidgeted, and I was sure he was about to walk away. For some reason, I thought it would be too bad if he did that. It would feel like another social failure to me, which would be strange because I didn’t see how I’d have failed. But it felt like it would be that way anyway. So I forced myself to say something and was surprised with what came out.

“Would you like to sit down?”

He quickly raised his eyes to meet mine again, and just that quickly I saw lots of stuff going on in there. It made me think. There was a lot more to me than anyone ever saw when they spoke to me. Could this kid be the same?

He didn’t speak but took the other chair at the table, the one Bonnie had used the day before. He sat, took a quick look at me, then lowered his eyes again. If anything was going to come of this, it was going to be up to me to make it happen.

I’d never known anyone as socially disabled as I was, but perhaps I’d just met one. Operating on that assumption, I used a soft voice. “Did you want to say something to me?”

He looked up again, opened his mouth, then grimaced. He didn’t speak.

I tried again. I kept any accusative or aggressive tone out of my voice. “You came to my table. You probably had a reason.” I smiled at him.

This time when he glanced up, I saw some desperation in his eyes. I felt sorry for him just as I’d always felt sorry for myself. But I realized that the harder a time he was having explaining himself, the more comfortable I was becoming. Here was someone who was as desperate meeting someone new as I was. Amazing. I found his abject shyness was making me bold. Bolder than I’d ever been with a stranger.

“Well, I guess it’s up to me to guess,” I said, rather nonchalantly, I thought. “You’re having a birthday party and wanted to invite me because you needed to have a life of the party there.” He didn’t respond. “No? Well, how about you noticed my pants were on fire and came to tell me, but then when you realized you’d need to talk about my pants, you didn’t know how to do it without sounding way too personal and so decided to just let me discover it for myself—eventually.” Still nothing, but it looked to me like his face muscles were relaxing a bit.

“Oh, I know! The principal heard I’d beaten up our star quarterback and linebacker one after the other with one punch each and asked you to come get me, to bring me to his office, and use all the force necessary to get me there, even if you had to drag me by the hair.”

I guess the idea that anyone as puny as I was could do anything so ridiculous or that anyone as puny as he was could drag anyone anywhere did it, because he actually looked up at me, and I saw a flash of humor in his eyes. He still didn’t speak but looked like maybe at some point he might decide to.

So I tried another tack, talking about something that didn’t include either him or me. I picked up my book and turned it so he could see the title. “I love science fiction. This is a good one. I’d recommend it to anyone. I like reading because I can do it by myself.” There.

He was quiet for a moment, but I kept glancing up at him and then around at the room in general. Kids were all talking together at the other tables. Very few kids were sitting by themselves. I was still looking around when he spoke.

“Bonnie told me I should come sit with you.”

Aha! A declarative sentence. Progress. His voice was soft and high pitched. Sort of like mine.

“You know Bonnie? Is she, like, your sister or something?”

“Something,” he said, and stopped, and there was a pause while I realized he wasn’t going on.

“Something?” I asked, confused. How could she be ‘something’?

He’d dropped his eyes again, and he ignored the question. But he did speak again. I knew from experience, once you’d broken the logjam, it was easier.

“She hates it that I’m shy and can’t talk to anyone. She, uh, she thought, uh…”

He stopped. He realized what he was going to say and how it would sound, and then he just couldn’t say it. I understood entirely, and I stepped in to help him out.

“She realized I was shy, too, and thought we might, uh, well, you know.”

“Yeah,” he said.

I felt like stopping, too, but wouldn't let myself. Instead, I said something that was quite forward for me. “I’d like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like what she thought.”

“Oh.”

That’s when I knew this would be hard work.

We both sat silently for a period and then the warning bell rang. He got up quickly, and, before he could leave, I said, “I’d be glad to have you sit here tomorrow. If you want. As long as you won’t talk my ear off.”

He stopped from scurrying off. He met my eyes for a moment. Then he said, “Thanks,” and was gone with the beginning of a smile on his face.

That was the beginning. Not auspicious, I know, but a beginning. Sometimes people really do need to advance in baby steps. That’s what works best for them.

We got to know each other at lunch over the next few weeks. Sometimes it was easy. Sometimes it was like pulling teeth.

One conversation, early on, went like this:

“How do you know Bonnie? She’s a senior and you’re a freshman?” Liam was much better at asking me questions than answering mine. I got the idea maybe he did that because it forced me to talk. I knew that strategy because I used it myself. Get the other person talking and you don’t have to say much. If you’re not talking, you’re less likely to embarrass yourself. Sometimes I didn’t even hear what they were saying because I was so busy thinking up the next question to ask them.

I blushed. “She babysat for me a few years ago. She knew me pretty well. She was 14, and I was 10. I was shy even then. She was nice. But, I didn’t know she had a brother. She never talked about having a brother.”

It was his turn to blush. Talking about ourselves was difficult. “That’s why I said ‘something’ when you asked if she was my sister. She isn’t, really. We’re cousins. I live with them now.”

“Oh.”

And it stopped there. I couldn’t bring myself to ask personal questions, and he’d have hated answering them. We spent a lot of time at that table without saying anything. But I’d become comfortable with that, and he seemed to be, too; at least, he came back every day. I liked having him there; it was way better than sitting alone. I knew what that looked like. I knew what labels people put on kids who did that.

What broke the ice a little faster happened the day I brought my deck of cards in again. I showed him a few tricks. He got excited enough to forget himself and open up his personality a little. That really was nice. I didn’t do it often—bring the cards. I didn’t want magic tricks to be the basis of any sort of friendship we might grow into. But when I did bring the cards, he really came alive and forgot to be so self-conscious. Or self-protective. I wasn’t sure what it was with him.

I think when I had the cards, he discovered he could open up a little with me without worrying about it. I wasn’t going to embarrass him, and by then I was sure he wouldn’t embarrass me, at least not on purpose. We recognized who and what we were without saying it out loud. What we were—one of the things we were—was two kids, two lonely kids, on their way to becoming friends. Embarrassing each other isn’t what friends do.

Not that becoming friends is always easy, always smooth sailing. But I think we both wanted it to happen, which helped. I remember the first time he invited me over to his house.

He asked me at lunch if I could come to his house after school the next day. I was excited by the prospect; he was blushing. No one ever invited me to come over to their house, and I agreed right away.

My parents were delighted, too. The logistics were a little difficult because Liam didn’t live anywhere near us, but that was easily resolved. My parents knew where Liam lived because they’d picked up Bonnie to come babysit me, and Mom agreed to come pick me up if Mrs. Farquar could get me to their house. Liam had told me she drove him to and from school every day because he hated to ride the bus; she could take me from the school to their house.

I was shy when I met her, but she was used to seeing how Liam was with strangers, and so seeing how awkward I was probably made me seem natural to her. In fact, she was very warm and accepting, she went out of her way to make me comfortable, and I took to her much faster than I did to most adults.

Liam’s room was large. His whole house was. He had a computer desk where he said he did his homework. He stood back beside it and let me explore his room. I was impressed by something other kids might not have been: his large collection of books. A set of shelves lined one entire wall, and it was almost all filled with books. Whereas I’d overheard other kids talking about their huge collections of video games and DVDs, he had very few of those. There was a single section for them, but it was small. His collection of books was huge. How he spent the bulk of his time was obvious.

I took my time looking at the books. I pulled one out whose title looked interesting, one I’d heard of: The Count of Monte Cristo. It was a thick book, and I wondered if he’d really read it.

“What’s this one about?” I asked, flipping pages.

“That’s a wonderful story,” he said, forgetting for a moment to be reserved with me. Perhaps talking about books was a way to get him to open up, I thought. “It’s about this guy, Edmond Dantes, who is wrongly sentenced for life for being a supporter of Napolean. He is in jail for six years before escaping. He is smart and cunning, and when he’s out, he is very successful. Then he seeks vengeance against those who wrongly incarcerated him.”

I watched as he said this and could see how excited he was. I was surprised, though, when I was putting the book back in its place that he stopped me. “No. Take it with you. You should read it. It’s one of the important books everyone should read. It’s full of human virtues and weaknesses, full of consequences, too; full of insights into humanity. Please, take it and read it.”

I could see in his eagerness that I’d disappoint him if I didn’t take it, so I did. I read it, too, and was happy I did. But that came later.

I sat down on his bed, and he joined me there, and as soon as he did, the walls were back up again. But he had sat down near me when he could have chosen to sit elsewhere. That meant something to me.

It was difficult because neither of us was good at simply chatting. I looked around us, at his room, at what I could see through the windows, and finally said, “This is really nice, Liam. The room, your house, but mostly, just you. Inviting me over, allowing me to spend some time with you. I don’t… I…” I was tongue-tied, as usual, but really wanted to tell him at least a little of what it felt like to finally have someone that was becoming a friend.

I don’t think boys usually talk abut that. They just become friends, become comfortable with each other, and that’s that. No words are needed. With Liam, him being as he was and me being as I was, I thought they were needed. I had to find some way around the shyness both of us felt.

So I took a gamble. A big risk. Something I still don’t know where I got the courage to do. But I did it.

I looked at him, and he dropped his eyes, and I said, “I’m going to do something now, and if it’s the wrong thing, and you hate me afterwards, well, I’ll apologize in advance, but I’m going to do it anyway.”

He looked up at me. “What?” he asked, warily.

“This,” I said, and then, my heart beating fast and expecting disaster, I launched myself at him. Grabbing him around the shoulders, I smashed him back against the bed so he was flat on his back, and then I began my assault—a tickling frenzy. “I’ve got you now,” I roared, laughing as I said it, and began an attack on all the susceptible places: ribs, armpits, neck, sides. As he’d cover one, I’d move to another.

And was he ever ticklish! I could almost just breathe on him and he’d be squealing.

I was careful, because it’s easy to go too far when you’re tickling someone. I was watching him carefully, and when it became enough, I began backing off, all the while saying, “Now, don’t you dare do that to me. I can’t take it. Just stay away from me. No fair to get revenge,” and words like that. Then I gave him a huge opening, hoping he’d take it, and man, did he ever. He was on me in a flash, and his tickling was every bit as manic as mine had been.

We were finally done and lying flat on the bed on our backs, heaving for breath. We were separated by an inch or so, and when I realized that, I wriggled a bit, and then my arm was touching his.

He didn’t move away. We lay like that till we could speak, and when we did, we both were much more comfortable doing so. It was a beginning. Before, we’d been two shy boys checking each other out guardedly. Friendship may have been our target, but we were both too cautious and self-protective to get there very easily.

But that’s what did happen over time. We became friends. We both became more relaxed, we let our guards down, and our happiness blossomed. Not having friends in your early teens is about the worst thing ever.

Playing cards scene break

The school term progressed. I was getting more comfortable there, but mostly that was because Liam was now part of it. Having someone to eat with and talk to made a big difference. I still wasn’t exactly comfortable in my skin, though. The puberty problem hadn’t resolved itself, and my doctor told me in another month or two, if I remained a slow coach, he’d see if he could give my system a little bump. But Liam was in much the same boat—still small like me, still no hair when he raised his arms, still no voice change—and so I was less bothered by it now. Annoyed, of course, but having someone to share your grief makes it much better. I assumed that was his problem—delayed puberty. I couldn’t mention it. My God! Talk about embarrassing! He didn’t mention it either, of course.

Our bodies were one of the few things we were still shy about with each other. I didn’t know if his reason for excess modesty around me was the same as mine, but I thought it possible. We couldn’t talk about it. I didn’t even like to think about my being entirely undeveloped, let alone talk to anyone. I hadn’t even mentioned it to my mother and certainly wouldn’t do it with a boy I was starting to like as maybe more than a simple school chum.

Well, not talk about it directly. I’d had an eyeful of a high-school junior in the gym showers recently. It seemed the boys became less modest as their reasons for covering up grew larger. Now, more and more upperclassmen were showering without anything between their skin and us. And we all looked. This junior had a lot to look at, and from the expression on his face, he enjoyed our dismay.

I told Liam about it while we were doing homework together at his house after school.

“You know Jamie Meyers?”

He was nibbling on the eraser of his pencil while looking at his pre-calculus problems, his long dark bangs hanging across his eyes. He often did that, and I always thought it was cute, but of course I couldn’t say that. “I think so. Isn’t he a junior, real skinny and kind of tall? Always wears solid-color tee shirts?” He blushed and turned away, but I still heard him say, softly, “Kind of cute?”

“Yeah, that’s the guy. He’s in my gym class. And he showered without his boxers on today.”

That certainly sparked Liam’s interest. His mouth popped open, and his pencil came out of his mouth. He didn’t say anything, but his eyes sure lit up. He had these green eyes that sometimes were deep and sometimes light; if you paid attention, you could really tell what he was thinking a lot of the time. Right then, he was thinking about Jamie and taking showers naked. He was thinking about it in a deep and personal way.

I didn’t have to explain to him what I meant by showering without his boxers. That happened in his gym class, too. I knew it did because I’d seen him drop off his bag of wet underwear in their laundry room when I came home with him after school.

I forged onward. “He came in with a towel wrapped around him like everyone else, then whipped it off in a way where we all looked at him. Usually the guys just sort of unwrapped their towels while turned away from us. He took his off with a flourish, facing us, like he wanted people to look. Then he rather proudly made his way slowly to the back of the shower room, passing everyone. He was trying to keep his face expressionless, you could tell, but a smug smile kept wanting to pop out.”

I stopped, knowing Liam would want more. More about Jamie’s parts down below his smile. I didn’t have to wait long.

“And what did he look like?” As I said, we were relaxed with each other now. He’d never have been able to ask that a couple of months earlier. He’d never have been able to show this kind of interest.

“Well, he’s skinny, you know. You can see his ribs. His stomach is really flat. I don’t know whether he eats enough. When he twists, those ribs stick out farther, and then, when he turns sideways—”

“Scott!”

OK, so I like to tease him. He likes it, too, but pretends he doesn’t. Sometimes he gets frustrated with me. Like just then.

“He’s really big, Liam. Everyone was watching. I don’t know if he was chubbed up at all, but he might have been. I’ll tell you one thing: he was proud of it and didn’t mind us looking. And seeing what he had, and how it looked on his skinny body, well, I think that just made it look bigger. Gee, I wonder what it would feel like, carrying that around?”

A pause, and then, softly, “Yeah, me, too!”

So, come to think of it, I guess we did talk that once about our own lack of development and how we felt about it.

Playing cards scene break

I was getting restless over not making much progress in the department of my personal growth into a studly teen. I wasn’t making much progress socially, either. I was friends, good friends, with Liam. But that was it. Well, not entirely. I’d been over at Liam’s house enough now that his parents and I had formed a sort of bond, even close enough where I wasn’t embarrassed being around them, even talking to them. I was able to talk to Bonnie when I saw her, too, although that wasn’t often because she was busy with whatever it was seniors got busy with. She had a boyfriend, too. I met him several times. I’d thought all seniors were kind of arrogant and were the other ‘a’ word, too. You know: assholes. He wasn’t like that at all. Maybe that’s why Bonnie liked him. I didn’t think she’d have much patience with a jerk. His name was Clay and I got along with him well enough to tease him that it was kind of close to Clyde, and asked him if that’s why he’d picked Bonnie. He laughed—thought it was funny. I liked people I could make laugh.

But with most people, I don’t know, maybe I just lacked self-confidence. I just wasn’t comfortable with people I didn’t know well. My dad was worried about me, too. He said I needed to get out more, meet people, put this problem behind me, or I’d never be as happy as I could be. Also, he said if I wanted to do anything with my card tricks, I had to be able to speak to people in a confident manner, that the spiel was part of the performance.

He was right. I knew that. And I still was practicing my tricks and did want to perform them in public. Not on the stage. Well, probably not. Maybe just a little. But no matter if it just was with a few people or at a party or whatever, I had to get over my reluctance to open up a little with strangers.

And so I began trying. One of the hardest things I’d ever done was at lunch the following week. I’d talked about it with Liam, and he was encouraging me. So, I got up and walked over to a table where a number of freshmen were sitting. I knew them; they knew me; we had classes together, so we weren’t really strangers. I’d just never said anything to any of them other than stuff like, “What page did she say to turn to,” or “did he say, ‘the x axis’, or, was he talking about the exits?”

I got to their table, they turned to look at me, and I said, “Anyone interested in seeing a card trick?”

I forced a smile. My heart was in my throat, but Robert, the one who usually spoke up when he was in a group, said, “Sure.” So I did my trick where one of the boys at the table picked a card from the deck and then put it back on top of the closed deck; after some cutting and shuffling, I had the participant knock on the closed deck, and the card was revealed on the bottom of the deck. Then I did my changing-a-card-to-another-card-and-then-back-again trick as I passed my empty hand over the cards. Both were pretty spectacular.

When I was done, they were all talking at once. I’d timed it so I’d be finished just about when the bell would ring, and it rang, and I was able to leave without saying much. But I felt really good and thought that maybe, with just a bit more practice, I’d be able to get better with strangers.

 I counted my performance as a success. It really was one. After that, a few kids who’d been at that table actually said hello to me. A few asked me to come show them some more tricks. And once or twice, I did!

So I was making slow progress. And that’s why I ended up doing what I did. But self-confidence is a very fragile thing. You can lose it in an instant if you’ve been a nerd all your life.

Playing cards scene break

“It’ll be fun!”

“I don’t know.” That was me.

“Come on! You know everyone. They know you. It’ll be good experience for you.” That was Liam, trying to talk me into performing some card tricks for the birthday party he was having soon. I wanted to do it, and I didn’t. Typical me.

I was better now—socially. A little. Just a little. This would be in a controlled environment, and there would only be freshmen boys and girls, and it would be at Liam’s house, where I was very comfortable. I spent almost as much time there now as I did at mine. Still, there was that unease in my stomach, thinking about it. A speeding up of my heart. A ringing in my ears.

Liam was about to become a 15-year-old. Just a few weeks before I would. When I hit 15, my doctor had promised to give me a shot. I was looking forward to that shot and what it would do for me.  But before that, Liam was having his party. Not a huge one, only eight boys including him and me, and eight girls, but a party with people, and I was to perform.

I asked him about all those girls. Liam never spoke much about girls, and so I didn’t, either. Or maybe he didn’t because I didn’t. Either way, girls weren’t a topic of conversation with us. But he had invited an entire giggle of them. Yeah, I know, but giggle fits them better.

I was surprised he’d invited them. So—I asked him.

“My mom.” That was his explanation. Made sense to me. It sort of suggested that without her intervention there might not have been any girls invited. I sort of suspected Liam might have been happier that way. We still never talked about our bodies, our development, our trials with puberty. I only assumed that Liam was in the same state I was because he hadn’t grown much, either, and his voice hadn’t broken and he didn’t have any hair in his pits. But I didn’t ask him about it, knowing he’d be embarrassed. The other thing I didn’t ask him about was where he stood on the liking-girls front. I did think about it, though. I thought maybe he was like me.

I really hoped he was like me, because I was very fond of Liam. I was with him a lot and thought about him when I wasn’t. We still had sleepovers quite often. Very chaste sleepovers. But sometimes, more often than not recently, there was a charged atmosphere when we got ready for bed and then when we were in it. He had a king-sized bed in his room, so there was lots of room for two small teens. We both stayed on our own sides. I tried not to sigh much. Maybe he did, too.

I’ve read enough stories about when boys Liam’s and my age like each other, they end up telling each other, and it all goes beautifully. I don’t know how they do that! I don’t have that kind of courage. My fear of things changing between us was just too strong.

Anyway, enough of this tangent.

Liam wanted me to do some magic tricks at the party. He knew how nervous I was in social situations. He was the same way, but he’d gotten over a lot of it in the past couple of months, while my progress had been minimal. He’d seen me struggle. He knew how I’d forced myself to show tricks to kids in the cafeteria and how proud I’d been afterwards. He wanted me to perform at the party not just to entertain the guests, but, as he said, because it would be good for me.

And in the end, that’s why I agreed. If he was trying so hard to help me, I wouldn’t be a good friend if I refused.

Still, I wavered. In the end, it was a crazy, rather insignificant detail that made up my mind. Stupid, really, but maybe that’s how things work. See, I had props and clothes and routines and patter that I’d accumulated but never used except in front of a mirror when I was practicing being a great magician on stage, wowing audiences and astounding my peers. I finally decided, with Liam’s encouragement, that this was the time to haul some of it out. I had a magician’s coat and shirt and trousers, all with hidden pockets and concealed nooks and crannies; a top hat and patent-leather shoes; and if I did hit a growth spurt—a badly wanted growth spurt—in a month or so, I’d never fit into any of this after that. So it was now or never. And that’s what pushed me over the edge. I agreed to do the party.

I’d never have done it without Liam behind me, pushing me to grow beyond what I was capable of all by myself. When I was ready to just say no, he looked into my eyes, something he was better at these days, and said, “Believe in yourself, Scott. I do.”

Playing cards scene break

I gave a lot of thought to what I wanted to do and picked out six tricks. I didn’t want too many. If they got bored they might start making sarcastic comments, and I’d probably just freeze if they did that. I would do five, have a sixth ready if needed, and I hoped I’d keep them interested all the way through.

I also decided to stick to card tricks. I did those best, had practiced them the most, and I felt most confident doing them. Besides, if I brought in large props, I’d have no assurance that I could get them put away before a bunch of guys started investigating them. On a stage, I wouldn’t have to worry about that. In Liam’s rec room, I would. Besides, worrying about that would just raise my already persistent fears that this whole business was a big mistake.

The day before the party, I was in my bedroom with Liam. We usually spent the bulk of our time at his house. His parents were well off, and they had a really large, impressive home in an exclusive area of town. We weren’t poor, but we were distinctly middle class, and I was always a little embarrassed bringing Liam to my house. Everything was super nice at his house; mine suffered in comparison.

He never seemed to notice.

We were both sitting on my bed with our legs crossed facing each other. I always felt a little funny sitting this way with him. There was an understated intimacy about it. I didn’t know if he felt it, but I did. We were way past the point where we couldn’t look into each other’s eyes. We did quite a bit of that now. Especially sitting cross-legged on the bed only a foot or so apart. I mean, our knees were almost touching, and the emerald of his eyes stood out against his pale complexion. His black hair was shiny and thick, and I often wondered what it would feel like to run my fingers through it.

We’d been outside running around and come in, both of us sweaty, so we’d taken off our shirts and were on the bed, I in my cargo shorts, Liam in his plaid shorts.

“I’m nervous,” I said, breaking the silence and what thoughts that evoked which had started building as soon as we gotten on the bed.

“I know you are. But you don’t need to be. You’re great. The Great Scott!”

OK, so I was nervous about the performance, too. I was glad to be distracted from my original thought. I’d decided on that name for the stage. I liked it and thought it was silly all at the same time. It certainly wasn’t me in real life. It suggested an ego I didn’t have. It suggested I’d be one of those larger-than-life performers who filled the room with his charisma. I had the charisma of a three-day-dead earthworm. But Liam liked it and hadn’t let me change it no matter how much I dithered about it.

“Yeah, right!”

“You’re in a bad mood, huh?”

“No, I just get this way when I’m nervous.”

I was having a hard time with my eyes. They seemed glued to his. I wanted to look away because I didn’t know what he was seeing in mine. Lately, I’d been trying to keep my face or eyes from showing him anything. I was afraid my evolving feelings might be too apparent. But for some reason, my eyes wouldn’t let go of his.

He leaned forward just a bit and put his hand on my knee. “Have you read Peter Pan?” he asked. Liam was the only boy I knew who read more than I did. But where I read only magic books and sci-fi, he read anything and everything. I’d never even considered reading Peter Pan.

“No,” I said, and laughed, a little bit embarrassed and a little bit pissed that I was. I didn’t like being embarrassed with Liam.

“Well, there’s a line in it that I liked, so I remembered it. The line was: ‘Just think of happy things, and your heart will fly on wings.’”

His eyes seemed bigger and a deeper green than ever. He hadn’t taken his hand off my knee.

“There’s another one I liked, too, and you should think about it, because you’re letting your fears own you.”

“No, I’m not!”

“You are, and you know it. If I wasn’t pushing you, you’d have backed out of this. Huh? Huh? Wouldn’t you?”

“Well…” He was right. I’d have found some excuse. The closer we’d got to tomorrow, the more I’d started doubting myself. I changed the subject. “What’s the other one?”

“Barrie—he was the author, in case you forgot—wrote, ‘The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease forever to be able to do it.’ The more you doubt you can get up in front of people and perform, the worse it’ll get, and you’ll end up having wasted all your practice and all your talent.”

I knew what he was doing. It was what he was always doing. I did the same for him, but he didn’t need it as much as I did. At least, when it was just the two of us. When we were together, it was as though he wasn’t shy at all. I was still nervous with him. Not as much, but some.

I finally broke my eyes from his and looked down. At his hand. On my bare knee. It was resting there, and I saw no sign he was planning on removing it soon. I looked back up, and his eyes were focused on mine. I didn’t know what he was thinking but knew whatever it was, it was deep.

“You’re going to be great, you know. We’ll have our cake, you’ll do your act, and then everyone will go home but you. You’re still staying the night, aren’t you?”

I nodded. Something else to be nervous about. The last time we’d spent the night, he’d asked me what I wore to bed at home when I was alone, and I said either my pajama bottoms or my underpants. He’d smiled at me and said I could sleep however I liked at his house. His intent was rather plain. I always slept in pajama bottoms at his house. I didn’t want his mother walking in and seeing me in my underpants. Not that she ever did that, but still…

He slept in pajama bottoms, too, when I was there, except that time, that last time when he’d asked what I usually wore, he’d made a point of undressing down to his briefs, then getting in bed just like that. He’d turned away from me but not fast enough. I got a quick glance at him as he was getting into bed, and there was no doubt he was hard. Which made me hard, and I got into bed just as quickly as he had, though I was in my pajama bottoms and didn’t think it was all that noticeable.

That was all that had happened. It was a big bed. As usual, we’d talked some, then drifted off to sleep. But that was last time, and I couldn’t help think about what might happen this time. It was his birthday, and sometimes boys have birthday wishes.

Playing cards scene break

There were balloons and other party trimmings decorating the basement rec room where the party was being held. A large banner reading, “Happy Birthday, Liam!” hung on one wall.

The rec room took up half the basement. Their house was built on a slope, and while the front half of the basement was underground, the back half, where the rec room was located, looked out over the backyard through a wall that was mostly windows. There was a patio just outside the windows and French doors leading to it, and then the lawn swept away, gently downhill, from that. At the far end of the yard there was a five-foot-high hedge.

Liam’s parents had asked Liam if he wanted to feed all the guests dinner, and Liam had said no. He wanted them over for cake and ice cream and, of course, presents. What was the point in inviting so many kids if it wasn’t to get presents? No, Liam’s plan was to have them over early in the evening, have them mingle and relax and have snacks in the rec room before serving cake and ice cream, then open presents, after which everyone would enjoy the main event of the evening: the debut performance of The Great Scott.

Well, that was the main event for everyone else. I was pretty sure Liam had a different main event in mind for us. He’d dropped hints, and his eyes had been more alive than usual, and, well, I knew Liam as well as he knew me, and he had a nervous energy about him all day that I couldn’t help but feel and share. I liked it because it helped get my mind off performing in front of a whole slew of people. It gave me something completely different to be nervous but excited about.

Everyone began arriving around seven-thirty and were all there by eight. The mingling part had bothered me because I still wasn’t comfortable in crowds, but I soon realized if I found ways to let the kids who came up to me do the talking, I could get by all right. It was hard to meet their eyes, but I knew that looking at my shoes while they were talking to me made me look like the nerd I knew myself to be, and so I forced myself to look them in the eyes.

By eight-thirty, Liam was ready and told his mother to bring down the cake and ice cream.  She did. It was a large cake with fifteen burning candles. We all sang happy birthday, Mrs. Farquar cut the cake and Mr. Farquar dished out the ice cream. While we were eating, Bonnie came downstairs and spoke to her mother, and then Mrs. Farquar spoke to Liam, and he nodded. Bonnie went back upstairs and came back down with a few of her and her boyfriend’s friends. They were served cake and ice cream as well. They all sat together off to the side of the room while Liam began opening his presents with all of us gathered around.

I began getting nervous. I was about to go on. My turn.

I talked to myself, trying hard to bolster my fading courage. Without anyone noticing, I slipped out the French doors. I’d left my magician outfit in the corner of the patio up against the house. There were curtains that could be drawn to screen the rec room from the backyard; they were mostly open except for about three feet on each side of the expanse of windows. I moved so I was behind them, then stripped off my outer clothes and into my performing duds. A couple more simple tasks, and I was ready.

I had to wait, but only for a few minutes, and then I heard Liam’s voice through the door I’d left slightly ajar, “And now for the highlight of the evening, I present… the Great Scott.”

I was on.

A magician is supposed to strut on stage as though he owns the world. That wasn’t me, but then, this was an act, it was part of being a magician, and so I did the best I could. I smiled large, walked tall, and thankfully, didn’t trip reentering the room.

There was some scattered applause and whistling. Liam had had everyone move so their backs were to the windows where they wouldn’t be distracted looking outside while I was performing.

I got into my patter, explaining I was going to do five card tricks for them. I didn’t have any trouble doing that because I’d scripted what I wanted to say. The group of freshmen all looked eager and interested. Bonnie’s group, which had stuck around for the performance, appeared less interested and perhaps even bored.

I started up with the patter to set the mood. I could do patter where I couldn’t do extemporaneous small talk because I didn’t have to make it up as I went, didn’t have to respond to what someone else was saying. I didn’t have to think on my feet, only to say what I’d practiced. I had it down cold, and that made it possible for me.

I started with my 1,000 Year Old Card Trick where I had the four aces on the top of the deck and showed them to the audience, then put them at random into the spread-out, face-down deck, shuffled and cut a few times, then dealt all four of them off the top again. The crowd liked it. I had their interest now. I bowed with a flourish, sweeping my top hat off my head after doing it. I saw the older kids move a little closer. Everyone likes magic tricks.

Next came my Power of Four trick. In this one, I showed them that the cards could talk to me if I made a point of listening to them. I cut the deck into two piles, counted down four cards on one and put my ear down to the pile and listened, explaining to the crowd that the pile would tell me what the fourth card down was on the other pile. I did this repeatedly, shuffling, making two piles and counting down, identifying the fourth card down on the other pile and showing that’s what it was, what I’d learned it was by listening to the deck. There was cheering again when I finished, a few comments about how that wasn’t possible, and while bowing I took a quick glance at Liam. He was grinning at me. I relaxed just slightly. Then Zach spoke up.

Zach Henry was one of those kids who always seemed to want to be the center of attention. He was that way at school, in classes, in the halls, in gym, in the locker room, in the cafeteria. He’d say or do most anything to draw attention to himself. He got in trouble for it in classes; some teachers didn’t want him interrupting their lessons; he got sent out by some of those. Detention didn’t seem to bother him; it must not have, because he spent a lot of time there.

I wasn’t very fond of Zach. He wanted attention, and I didn’t. If I was with him and he started up, people would look at us. So I did everything I could not to be around him.

Now, he was sitting on the floor in front, watching, and he began making comments. Perhaps he thought he was being funny, but his voice was sarcastic, and it was very distracting. He started after my third trick, the one where I made a card vanish in thin air as I moved my hand holding it rapidly up and down, then made it reappear the same way. He continued on into the fourth trick, and by that time I was no longer enjoying myself. He’d taken away any self-confidence I had by interrupting my patter, disrupting the flow and rhythm of the tricks, and he’d gotten what he wanted: the kids were paying as much attention to him as to me. Some were laughing at his jokes and jibes, although some, to give them their due, were yelling at him to be quiet. He ignored those.

I didn’t have the ability to turn his sarcasm against him to shut him up. I did my best to ignore it, but he was causing me a lot of anxiety.

Liam tried to stop him, but Liam was like me, basically self-conscious and ineffectual in a group setting, and he was easily ignored by a boy who couldn’t even be controlled by teachers.

I’d reached my last trick and thought if I could somehow rush through it, I’d at least be done, which was too bad because this was my best trick. Zach probably thought something like that, too. This would be his last chance to attain the attention of everyone in the room.

He’d been demanding to know how each trick was done and making suggestions of how they were. His suggestions weren’t even close to being correct; they were obviously wild and crazy guesses, but people still were listening, and a few of them were calling out for explanations of how I was doing what I was doing. Even a few of the seniors who were with Bonnie. I think they could see I was getting flustered and thought it funny.

I ignored them the best I could, just as I’d totally ignored Zach.
But I wasn’t able to ignore them internally.

My last trick was one of my most spectacular ones. I was glad I’d reached this point. I was really ready to be finished. This one didn’t take long, but was pretty special and was a great way to close.

“And now, ladies and gentlemen, for my closing number, I’m going to challenge the time/space relativity nexus. I spent hours learning this trick, and it isn’t a trick as much as it is a communal attempt to control the physical reality of our present.  I’m going to ask you all to join me in making this work. The more you help, the greater the control we can exert on our own temporal existence.”

I was rattling this off and hoping against hope Zach wouldn't comment. I needed a more somber, more mystical atmosphere, and his wisecracking would be more than detrimental; it would undermine the effect of the trick.

Thankfully, everyone was touched by how serious I’d become while giving this spiel, and the room was still.

“What I will do, with your help, is make a card move through our physical universe in a way that may seem impossible, but if we all work together, you will see the results with your own eyes. With our minds joined in a single purpose, we can control the laws of nature. To what degree that is possible, here and now, is up to you and the power of your minds. Now, I need a volunteer to take a card, look at it, show it to the others, and then to place it back in the deck. First I’ll show you the deck is an ordinary deck of cards.”

I held up the deck and riffled through it, then turned it face up and fanned it out so everyone could see. Then I closed it and shuffled it a few times before cutting it three times so the audience could see it was now ready and that I had no idea what was what and where any specific card was. Then I fanned it out, face down, and asked, “Who wants to pick a card.”

Zack immediately said he did. I was hoping he would. If he was part of the trick, I figured maybe that would both shut him up and draw attention to him when that would be useful.

I accepted his offer and had him rise and pull a card from the deck, being sure not to show it to me, though I was forcing a card on him that neither he nor anyone else noticed and so knew what card he was taking. This was made easy by the deck half-full of shaved cards I was using. I told him he was to look at it, and then make sure everyone else saw what it was because their assistance was needed for the trick to work best.

He did as I asked. While he was carefully letting the others see the card while protecting it from me, I let my hand holding the deck fall casually to my side while turning very slightly so my left side wasn’t in view of the crowd, and in less than a second I had unobtrusively slipped the cards into a slit in my trousers where they dropped into a secret pocket. At the same time I retrieved a deck with the same backs on it from the pocket next to it. Everyone was getting a glimpse of the card Zach was holding, and no one was paying enough attention to me to see anything. My feeling was, I’d done the switch so quickly and naturally that even if they had been watching me, they’d never have seen what I’d done.

“All right,” I said when Zach had slipped the card back into the deck face down and I’d shuffled and cut the deck several times. “Does everyone know what the card is?”

They all nodded and some called out that they did.

“OK, then, this is where I need your help. The more you do as I ask, the more you believe in the force generated when all of our wills, all our spirits are working together for a common cause, the more effective your help will be. What I am going to do is make this card —I don’t even know what it is, but you all do—separate itself from the pack. It can do that if you give it life. It will transport itself away from the others, and the harder you concentrate on it, the farther apart it will travel. Are you ready?”

They nodded and a few said yes. That wasn’t what I wanted. So I screwed up every ounce of courage I had and thundered, “ARE YOU READY?!” and cupped one hand behind my ear. This time, they all shouted, “YES!” which made me feel good because I now knew they were fully involved.

“THEN CONCENTRATE ON THAT CARD!” I yelled. Then, with a broad sweeping movement and splaying the cards out, moves I’d practiced for maximum effect, I hurled the cards at the audience while waving my non-throwing arm like a wand-less Harry Potter and shouting, “DISASSEMBLATEUMOUS!”

Well, I hurled the cards at them but over their heads toward the windows behind them. The cards spread out as they flew, as I’d wanted them to, and a few hit the edge of the left hand curtain while most hit the windows and scattered all over the floor below.

Everyone turned to look and saw all the cards lying on the floor. Then Zach yelled, “Look!” and pointed to the edge of the curtains. There, sticking to the glass, was the card he’d picked. It was facing the room so everyone could see it was indeed the correct card. Then someone else yelled, “Hey, it’s on the other side of the glass!”

“Wow!” I said. “That’s the best I’ve ever done. You guys really concentrated. I’ve never seen it stick to the other side of the glass, only to the inside. You guys really have some power.”

Everyone looked at me, then at the card, then back at me. Zach was the first to speak. “How the hell did you do that?” he asked, his voice full of wonder.

And that was the exact moment it all started to get ugly.

Playing cards scene break

“Thank you all very much for being such a great audience,” I said and took a deep bow.

“Yeah,” said a deep voice from the rear. “That’s not possible! How did you do that?”

Another voice from the side of the room asked the same thing.

I put up my hand. “A magician is only as good as his secrets. This one would be difficult to explain in any case because it’s special. It uses the combined mystic energies of everyone here. I could explain the theory, but that’s much less interesting than seeing the effect, which you all just witnessed and participated in.”

I was starting to sweat under my black jacket. It wasn’t supposed to go like this. They were supposed to applaud and then all leave, wondering at what they’d just seen. They weren’t leaving.

The deep voice that I’d heard before spoke again. “Bullshit! That was no mystic mumbo-jumbo. How’d you do that?”

“Yeah, we want to know,” Zach yelled, encouraged by having support but not wanting to relinquish what he thought was his claim to the spotlight.

“We all want to know,” came another voice, another senior. I heard Bonnie say something, but someone talked over her, saying, “Yeah, tell us how you did that?”

I just shook my head. I didn’t know what to say and wasn’t sure I could say anything. My nerves were coming unglued. The crowd seemed to be getting hostile. It seemed like it was me against everyone, and I had no idea how to handle that. I couldn’t even face a friendly crowd without all sorts of anxiety. This wasn’t a friendly crowd, not any longer. This was terrible. I could feel myself beginning to tremble and was immediately and thoroughly tongue-tied.

The voices in the crowd were getting louder, and I realized it was now all coming from the seniors. The freshmen had fallen silent, and some of them had worried looks on their faces. Even Zach, feeling something was amiss, feeling the atmosphere in the room change, had shut up.

Then I felt a presence and turned to find a large senior boy next to me. “So, tell us how you did that,” he said, sounding menacing. He was looming over me, and my trembling got worse.

Then other voices, older voices, sprang up. “Yeah, make him tell you, Johnny.”

“He’s probably got things up his sleeves and in his hat. That’s what those guys do.”

“Yeah, search him. He won’t talk, so search him.”

“Yeah. Search. Search. Search.”

“You going to tell us?” asked Johnny, moving a step closer.

I couldn’t have told him even if I wanted to. I was frozen. I was speechless. From the corner of my eye, I saw Bonnie trying to head through the crowd, heading for the stairs, and my heart skipped a beat. She might have been the only one there who could have saved me, and she was saving herself.

And then, Johnny grabbed me. Another boy joined him. Johnny held me and even with my squirming, they manage to wrest my black magician’s tux jacket off me. I had a deck of cards in each side pocket of it, cards with a different back on them than the one I’d used for the traveling card trick I’d just done. They were innocuous. The boy looked at them and shook his head.

“Try his pants,” said Johnny, and grabbed me by both arms and lifted me off the floor. As I weighed less than 100 pounds, that was no problem for him.

The other boy grabbed my pants and pulled them down. I suppose he was expecting them to come off and I’d be left in my underwear, embarrassing but no big deal. But that isn’t what happened. He pulled down my pants, and the deck of cards in the inner pocket snagged my boxers on the way down, and pulled them off, too, and I was left hanging naked in front of everyone, everything on display. All my shame was on view. My little-boy, non-developed body was right there, wriggling around in Johnny’s grasp, right in front of my classmates.

I shrieked. It was a piercing, deafening, high-pitched shriek, so loud that even Johnny was surprised and suddenly unsure of what was happening and his part in it. He hesitated, then just dropped me. I fell to the floor, still screaming. I didn’t stop. Everyone knew now. My humiliating, embarrassing body had been on display, and my shame was unstoppable and unbearable. I screamed and screamed, rolling myself into a ball, but having nothing to cover myself with.

I don’t really know how long I continued screaming. I know someone covered me. I know someone picked me up and held me. Someone rocked me and shushed me and, eventually, I must have stopped. When I did, the room was absolutely silent. My eyes had been tightly shut while I’d screamed. Now, whenever that was, however much time had passed, I slowly opened them.

Mrs. Farquar was sitting on the floor, holding me in her arms. I had a light blanket around me, covering me. I glanced around and saw all the kids were gone. The only one there was Liam, and he was looking at me with fear in his eyes.

Playing cards scene break

An hour later, I was still shaken up, but I was mostly myself again. Liam’s parents had been so supportive. If my parents had been home, I’d have gone there, but they’d gone to visit my aunt in a town three hours away, knowing I was spending the night at Liam’s. There would be no one home at my house. I might have gone anyway, but Liam’s mom would have none of that. She said I needed to be with people who loved me. Wow!

She’d hugged me and held me even after I’d come back from wherever I’d been when I’d collapsed, held me till I’d started squirming a little because I’d become aware enough to begin to feel embarrassed. Liam was still there, sitting, watching. That was embarrassing, too, and I think he saw that, because he said, “Hey, let’s get something to drink and go upstairs.” I’d nodded, and thanked his mother, and she’d kissed my forehead, saying, “It’ll be all right, Scott. It will. Just wait and see,” and then left.

Upstairs, I sat on the bed and dropped my eyes. Everything seemed different now. Everyone knew my great shame. Liam did, too. I wasn’t sure how I was going to go back to school on Monday. I could just imagine what kind of remarks I’d hear. I could just imagine how people would be laughing. In fact, I couldn’t think of anything but that. I started to shake.

Liam sat down next to me on the bed and handed me a Coke. “Drink this,” he said, and he said it in a tone of voice that meant he wasn’t going to take any crap about it. I wasn’t in any mood for confrontations anyway. I drank about half of it and handed it back to him.

He set the can on his bedside table, then sat next to me again. I didn’t look up, and he slipped his arm around my shoulders.

“Hey, come on. It wasn’t that bad.”

I kept my head down, but said, “It was awful. Everyone saw me. Saw that I’m, I’m… You saw me. Your sister probably saw me. All the boys in our class—and the girls, too. They all saw.”

He pulled me a little closer to him. He shouldn’t have been doing that, I thought. He was just being nice. He now knew what I hadn’t wanted him or anyone else to know.

“Scott?” He took his arm from around my shoulders before saying my name. I had to look up.

“Yeah?”

“So you’re later starting puberty than most. It’s not that big a deal. We all heard in sex-ed that that happens.  Some boys don’t really start till they’re 16, and you’re not even 15 yet. We all learned that. We all know it.”

I looked down again, but he kept talking. “Everyone has hang-ups about their bodies. We make them too important. But our body is more important to us than to other people. The kids there saw you, but that’s all it was. You looked like a boy that hadn’t started puberty. And you know what? They were all at that same place, too, and only a year or so ago. Some maybe only a few months. The girls, well, they know what boys look like. They probably didn’t think anything of it. The only one who cared too much was you. And you’re over that now.”

“Well,” I said, wishing I was over it, “that’s easy to say, but I’m the only one like I am in our entire school.”

“No, you’re not. I haven’t started yet, either. I’m pretty sure you know or suspect that. We’re the same height, neither of our voices has changed, and I’ve seen you looking at me. And, you know what? Maybe we haven’t started, maybe we’re still small down there, but mine works fine, and yours does, too. I saw you get hard the last time you were over here. You saw me, too. So, we’re in the same boat.”

I shook my head. “But everyone saw me. Everyone knows.”

He stood up, waited till I looked up at him, and then he started to undress. When his shirt was off and he was unbuckling his shorts, I said, “What are you doing?”

“I’m showing you this isn’t the end of the world. We’re just two boys who like each other, and it’s past time when we should be embarrassed about our bodies. I’ve been embarrassed about me, too, but not now. Not anymore.”

He kept removing clothing, and when all that was left were his briefs, down they came, too. He was standing in front of me, naked, unashamed, unembarrassed. He stood there, and then, to my surprise, he reached down and started to touch himself. Within seconds, he was hard as a rock.

“Now it’s your turn,” he said, not stopping.

I’ll say one thing: he was really good at getting my mind off what had happened at the party!

Hesitating only a little, having forgotten why I was so upset now that I was faced with a naked and aroused boy, one I happened to be in like with, I stood up and began getting undressed. He watched. I couldn’t help but watch him and what he was doing, either. It was having the effect he probably had figured it would, because by the time I bashfully dropped my boxers, I was as hard as he was.

We stood looking at each other in silence for a few moments. We looked very similar. Both small, undeveloped, hairless, and hard. He grinned at me.

“Scott, I like you. I think I more than like you. I think you like me, too. I think I’m gay. I hope you are, too, but even if you’re not, I still like you.”

“When did you get so brave?” I asked.

“When I saw you on the floor, shrieking. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but I knew the guy I liked—hell, I’ll say it, the guy I’ve been falling in love with—was hurting, and I was going to do whatever I could to help him. I think this is how I can help you. I realized, seeing you on the floor, that you need me as much as I need you. I wasn’t sure of that before.”

“You love me?” OK, I was probably supposed to get more out of what he’d just said, but that was all I could focus on.

He didn’t answer. What he did was to stop playing with himself and reach out with his hand. I took it in mine, and he pulled me over to the bed. He pulled the covers down, then helped me get in. He got in, too. This time, we didn’t stay far apart. This time, we stayed as close together as it was possible for two boys to get.

I’d never done anything with another boy, and neither had he, so we fumbled around a lot.  I forgot all about the party and my humiliation. This was real, and this was now, and I was entirely into it. My heart was racing, and I’d never felt so alive. My skin was so, so sensitive, wherever he touched it. He seemed to be the same as he wriggled and sighed as I touched him all over.

He loved me! I kept remembering those words. And I loved him, even if I was too chicken to say it, but I knew he knew it, and because of that, everything we did was done with passion and intensity, and it was reflected in the release of the pent-up emotions we’d both felt in all the time we’d been spending together.

Even though our efforts were fumbling and inexperienced, they provided the best sensations I’d ever known, and the emotions that went with them were just as good. Maybe the fact we cared so much for each other helped, because neither of us was embarrassed. We did what felt right, and we giggled when things didn’t go just as we thought they would. We panted and gasped, breathing when possible, not breathing when we couldn’t. The emotional feelings were so incredibly strong and the physical feelings just as extreme.

We kissed for the first time and spent a lot of time learning how to do that right. Hard and soft, with all the passion either of us was capable of. We were fast learners and found out how to convey our feelings with our lips and tongues, fingers and bodies. Found out what felt good and then what felt really good, found out how to arouse the other and how to calm him down.

We also found that kissing things other than lips could be the most exciting thing in the world. We got very little sleep that night. I learned without any doubt at all that, while puberty might not have started, while our bodies might not yet be capable of everything they eventually would be, what we could do was sensational, and that the second and third times were just as fantastic as the first.

It was the best night of my life after starting out being the worst.

Playing cards scene break

I felt really good, if sleepy, the next day. It was Sunday, and Mrs. Farquar made us waffles with real maple syrup and breakfast sausages and hot chocolate. The entire family was there. Bonnie acted as usual, being really nice to me and Liam. She didn’t seem to think I was a freak or anything.

As the day passed, however, I started to brood. I knew that tomorrow at school was going to be awful. I left the Farquars and Liam in the middle of the afternoon. My parents asked how the party and my performance had been, and I smiled and said what was necessary but then went up to my room and began working myself up into a state, anticipating what would happen.

Liam called. He knew me. He knew me better than anyone else. He spoke about our night together, which certainly got my mind off school for a while. Then he started talking to me about my fears, telling me I’d get through whatever happened, that I was stronger now than I’d been at the beginning of the school term, and that he’d be there with me as much as he could. He said we were a couple now and to think about that rather than what might happen, that we were real and my fears were only my imagination running away with itself.

He talked to me for a long time, and it helped.

I was pretty quiet at dinner, but my parents were talking about how their visit to my aunt had gone and what was new with her, and they didn’t notice my mood. That was good because I didn’t want to explain it to them anyway.

I slept much better than I’d thought I would, but that was probably due to the lack of sleep I’d got the night before. The night with Liam. The wonderful night with Liam.

I realized something. When I started really dreading what was about to come, if I forced myself to think of Liam instead, I felt better. So that’s what I started to do. It worked. It worked well enough that I ate breakfast and then took off for school. My step wasn’t light and carefree, but neither was it bummed. Keeping Liam in my mind really helped. Kids would pick on me and tease me; I knew that. They had two things to zing me for: the fact I was still undeveloped at almost 15 and that I’d broken down crying and screaming in front of them. It would come, I knew that. I had to concentrate on Liam. Had to. Me being a nerd wasn’t important. Liam was important.

Liam met me outside school, which brought an automatic smile to my face. He gave me another pep talk and ended it with, “Smile and be cheerful. People will respond to that. If you invite teasing and sarcasm and putdowns, you may get some, but if you look happy and confident, they’ll definitely respond to that in kind. Most kids like you, Scott, more than you realize. You can do this.”

And then I was on my own. I walked to my locker, sensitive to everything around me. I was expecting the worst. But trying my hardest, I did keep a smile on my face. I wasn’t sure what it looked like, but I did force one, and it was the best I could do.

Just before I reached my locker, I was intercepted. It was Mary Sue Elkins, one of the people at the party.

“Hi, Scott,” she said, bubbling. Mary Sue was a bubbler. One of those over-the-top-with-too-much-personality girls. “You were great at the party. I don’t know how you can do all those tricks. You really were the Great Scott!” Then she laughed, touched my arm, and walked away. I hadn’t said a thing.

I got my books for my morning classes out of my locker and headed for my homeroom. Coming toward me down the hall were two of the boys in my year who’d been at the party, Josh and Sergio.

“Hey, Scott,” said Sergio, the first to spot me. His face lit up in a smile. “Great performance Saturday night. Sorry about the pantsing. But Mr. Farquar really gave it to that Johnny guy outside. Really laid into him.”

“How’d you do that last trick?” Josh broke in. “I couldn’t believe that really happened! But I saw it with my own eyes!”

Just then the bell rang, and they took off for their homeroom just like I took off for mine. I sat down in my assigned seat as our homeroom teacher took roll. Several people who’d been at the party were in the room. I glanced around, and several of them waved or nodded. All were smiling. I didn’t get it. I didn’t see any sign of derision or contempt at all.

My fears—what I’d worried about for so long—they couldn’t have all been in my head, could they? Did people really not care? Did they all see my horrible shame and simply think it was no big deal at all? Not even enough of anything to mention? Sergio had mentioned it, but he’d talked about what Johnny had done, not what I looked like or how I’d acted. Had I made my delayed puberty into a huge deal and then my major meltdown into what to me was an almost terminal embarrassment, when neither of them had mattered all that much to anyone else?

Liam had told me that was the case, but I hadn’t believed him. He’d told me he worried about his lack of development, too, but not the way I did. He’d said everyone worries about something to do with their lack of perfection and how they appear to others. Teenagers are famous for this, he’d said, and insisted all teens did it. He’d read about it in one of those books he was always into, the ones that weren’t sci-fi. When he’d said that, he’d laughed.

Maybe he’d been right. Maybe what to me had been a humiliating problem was simply no big deal, something that other people could take in stride.

The bell rang, and I was off to my first class. But, as soon as I’d left my homeroom, I was joined in the hall by Zach Henry. This would be it, I knew. Zach had a mouth on him that knew no limits.

I looked over at him, remembered Liam’s advice, and smiled. My heart began racing. This would be the acid test if I could take his barbs or not.

Zach saw me and rushed over. I stopped. Might as well face the music than try to avoid him, I thought.

“Hey, Scott. Those tricks were great!” Zach was gushing, but then, he always was loud.

“You liked them? From what you were saying at the party, I thought you thought they were silly or bad.”

“Oh, Scott! No! You know me. I can’t keep quiet for anything. Don’t tell anyone, but I’m on medication, except I don’t like it and don’t always take it. Hey, I hope I didn’t upset you with anything I said. You were fantastic. That was just me being me.”

“Really? I… I…” I wasn’t expecting this. Not from Zach. I’d dropped my eyes, something I invariably did, and when I looked up, he was staring at me with concern in his eyes.

“Hey,” he said, no longer broadcasting to everyone in the hall, “I’m sorry if what I did at the party bothered you. I really am, and wouldn’t want, well, you know what Mr. Farquar said.”

He really sounded worried, and I had no idea why. “No, I don’t know. What did he say?”

He softened his voice even lower. “He was really chewing on Johnny out on the front lawn. He was yelling at him, and everyone could hear what he was saying. One thing he mentioned was that too often kids killed themselves when their self-esteem had been shattered, and it was people like Johnny and what he did that caused that. That many teens were emotionally fragile, and as fitting in was vital to them, doing what Johnny had done could well result in other kids teasing and making fun. He told Johnny that if you ended up doing something like that, everyone who teased him would be responsible, but Johnny would be the most responsible of all.

“All of us leaving the party were looking at each other when we heard that. We thought about how great you and your tricks were. We don’t really know you very well because you’re so quiet, and, well, shy I guess, but you’re one of us, part of our class, and the thought that you might be that upset… upset enough to…”

He stopped, still looking at me with worried eyes.

I had no idea Mr. Farquar had said anything like that. I knew he liked me. Maybe he was worried about me. Maybe—though I could hardly believe it—the kids who were at the party were worried about me, too. But now I understood why maybe I hadn’t heard any of the comments I’d expected to hear from the beginning of the school day till right then.

I raised and held my eyes on Zach. “I won’t do anything like that. But, look, if kids are being kind to me on purpose because of what you said, I want you to tell them that I appreciate it, but they don’t have to worry. I’d like them to know I’m grateful they care.  I’m quiet because I am shy, and it would be difficult for me to tell them myself.”

The worry left his face, and he smiled. “You sure didn’t look shy doing those tricks at the party. You looked like you were totally in charge of the whole room.”

I managed a laugh. “That might have been my best trick of all,” I said.

He laughed when I did. Then he said, “I was wondering, Scott.  I’m having my own birthday next month, and could you come and perform at my party? I’d love that. You were really good. My mom could pay you.”

“Uh, gee, Zach. I don’t know. I’ll be getting over Liam’s party for a while. That was a pretty heavy night for me.”

“Yeah, but my party won’t be for almost a month, and you’ll be OK by then, I’m sure. And I’ll only have younger guys at my party. Nothing like what happened at Liam’s will happen there. At least think about it, please? I’d really like you to come, and I promise I won’t interrupt your tricks.”

“Really? You promise?”

He managed to look a little sheepish and nodded.

“OK, I’ll think about it, Zach.”

“Thanks, Scott. And by the way, how did you do that last trick?”

I laughed. I actually laughed a real, heartfelt laugh, maybe because I’d been so tense and now wasn’t. I laughed and just waved at him as I walked away.

That was the way it went all day. People who’d been there all came up to me and complimented me on my magician act. No one said a thing about my lack of development or my crying like a baby. I did spot a few of the seniors who’d been there. Every one of them, when they saw me, looked embarrassed and dropped their eyes. That at least made me feel a little better. They didn’t look at me curiously like they thought I was a freak, and maybe were even ashamed that they’d been part of what had happened.

Liam and I left school together that afternoon, and I was feeling really good that my worries had been for nothing. I was feeling so good and so happy to be with Liam that I sort of lost my head. I let my hand brush against his as we walked, and then, the next time they brushed, I took hold of his. He glanced over at me, then smiled, and we walked on.

We’d only gone a little farther when I heard footsteps behind us, running, and I glanced back over my shoulder. Forrest Mercer, one of the party attendees whom everyone called Woods, was closing in on us. I stopped, which stopped Liam as well. He opened his hand, but I didn’t let go.

Woods stopped in front of us. He glanced at our hands, then smiled. “I thought so,” he said. “Cool.” Then he turned to me. “Scott, I loved your act on Saturday. I’d like to learn how to do tricks like that. I know you don’t want to give anything away, but maybe you could loan me some books on magic tricks if you have any or point me to some websites.  If you ever want to, I’d love you to come over to my house after school and show me some stuff to get me started.  I want to be able to do what you did. You were really good.”

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll bring you a book tomorrow and a list of sites you might like. I’ll have to ask my boyfriend if it’s OK to go to your house, though.” I giggled when I said that. It just felt so good!

“He can come, too,” Woods said. “That would be great.” He looked at our hands again before raising his eyes to mine, a wistful look in his.

“You were really good,” he repeated. And that last trick…” He shook his head; I guessed he was remembering how he’d felt when he’d seen it. “I loved watching you perform,” he continued. “You were so cool!” He looked over at Liam and back to me. “How did you do it?” he asked.

He probably meant the last trick, which everyone had been asking about, but I chose to think he was asking about Liam and me. So I grinned as I answered him. “That was magic,” I said. “It was real magic.”

The End

======================Top hat and magician's wand======================

Thanks as usual to my editors. And to Mike for posting my stories.

Every trick mentioned in this story is in the standard inventory of most magicians, pros and amateurs. They can all be found with explanations and often tutorials with a little research. Of course, you will need to practice.

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Cole