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A pudgy man in a tuxedo with curly red hair like wire wool appeared on stage in a puff of smoke: Dinny Draoi the Master Illusionist. He blew on his smoking index finger and bowed deeply as the concealed trapdoor shut, then he pranced off but his tight tuxedo made him waddle like a penguin. The packed theater laughed, but it wasn’t a joke — his thrift store tux had shrunk in the wash.

His wife, Debbie, had taken him from the back alleys and away from Three-card Monte, needle-through-the-arm, and swallowing razor blades. This was the opening night of a sold-out run in the Belfast Opera House — the Big Time.

Debbie gracefully glided past him like on casters, and pirouetted, her sequinned spandex catsuit glittering. Her beauty was ample misdirection — spins, twirls, leg kicks. She shackled Dinny in thick chains, dragged a hood over his sweaty forehead, then can-canned blocking him from view.

A puff of blue smoke.

Dinny exploded from the center of a giant birthday cake that was in the middle of the aisle. Getting out, he slipped on the cream filling and landed on his arse. The audience convulsed.

After the show, Dinny dropped trou in the dressing room and squeegeed his stubby legs, clothes dripping with perspiration. Debbie entered, pristine as polished marble.

“The cream filling has got to go,” he said. “No jam either — too sticky.”

She’d written the show, designed the illusions, and financed this run of shows.

Glaring at her now, he jabbed his index finger in her face.

She said, “Never point that thing at me again.”

He dry-gulped and swivelled his index finger away. He had a lot of magic in that finger.

But she’d seen him mess up with that finger before and people had gotten hurt; he’d been working back alleys ever since.

“I’ve invested everything in this, Dinny…”

He slumped onto a chair and rubbed makeup off his face. “I won’t mess up, hon. Not again.”

On the second night, national newspaper critics were in the front row. Debbie hauled the Iron Boot onstage, Dinny’s favorite trick. His feet were clamped into the metal prison, but after he unleashed his index finger, in a puff of smoke he would reappear sitting next to one of the critics.

Debbie can-canned across stage, and Dinny shot his loaded finger.

In the dressing room later, Dinny gawked despairingly at his naked body in the full-length mirror. Debbie entered and winced.

“You tightened the boot too much,” he said. “I had to use more finger than I’d have liked.”

“You shouldn’t be using it at all,” she replied. “My way, you don’t ever need to use it again.”

“The finger plays. You just need to find better ways to incorporate it.”

She faced him unblinking. “It’s not worth the risk.”

Then her face softened and she stroked him on the neck. He’d been such a drunken mess when she found him, and she’d worked so hard since then to make their life together succeed. She couldn’t lose him.

He said, “Let’s do the disappearing act tomorrow.”

“It’s not ready.”

He shoved back from her embrace. “You’ll never learn to trust me.”

Debbie snatched her papers off the table, detailing Pepper’s ghost illusion and how to make transparent ghostly images appear. She threw the door open but lingered in the hallway. “The disappearing act isn’t ready. Turn that index finger on yourself, you’ll never come back.”

On the third night, Debbie rolled a large wooden wheel onstage, the surface lacerated with knife scars and hatchet fissures. The packed house brayed. Dinny clambered into position, and she attached the limb restraints. He was oddly rigid, and she couldn’t ensure the correct pressure on the restraints, which the trick depended on. And he was sweating more than usual.

Debbie sashayed to the side of the wheel and spun it, Dinny rotating about the center. The trick was that she would throw knives and hatchets at him, and, while still spinning, he would catch them in his teeth. They were real. It’s why she fell in love with him. Debbie moved to her position but the wheel rattled off its double-hinge and toppled over. Dinny landed hard, trousers splitting at the arse. Something snapped — he hoped just an elastic.

The impact triggered his spring-loaded devices and knotted handkerchiefs vomited from his sleeves. The white doves Velcroed inside his jacket escaped, circled and shat on his shoulder.

The audience roared, adoring his broad humor.

But the trick had been ruined. He’d tensed too much during the setup and had caused the wheel to upend. And now he was stuck in the middle of the stage without an escape. There was nothing in Debbie’s script to save him now.

All eyes on him, glaring unblinkingly. He wished he was elsewhere. Anywhere. He never wished anything as much in his life, stuck there in this harsh blue light with nowhere to go, no escape.

Silence now.

They stared.

He wished he could simply disappear into nothing.

Dinny Draoi the Master Illusionist pointed his right hand like a gun.

Debbie was running toward him, mouthing fearfully, telling him not to do this, not to disappear.

His index thrummed.

If this didn’t work, he knew, it would ruin both their careers. No coming back from this. He couldn’t let Debbie lose everything, not like this, not because of his own stupid mistake.

Dinny turned his finger towards his chest. Debbie was in arm’s reach, grabbing for his hand, trying to disarm him. He offered a pensive grin, centered his mind, and unleased his finger. Smoke twisted off his fingernail and his chest walloped.

Reality slipped. The nothingness around him became the thing that he was, lost in the flux. He was nothing now and nothing ever more.

Dinny vanished, and Debbie fell through the place where he had been.

The audience roared for more.

Michael McGlade is an Irish writer with short stories in journals such as Shimmer, Persistent Visions, Far Fetched Fables, and Ares Magazine. He holds a master’s degree in English and Creative Writing from the Seamus Heaney Centre, Queen’s University, Ireland. He’s currently writing his debut novel. Find out the latest news and views from him online.