She looked dreadful in the wig. It was lopsided and glued together with matted yak hair. Along with an ill-fitting sweat suit, little Eva Tippet’s parents had cemented their daughter’s ostracization.
“Attending parties is what children of a neighborhood do,” explained her mother. “And you are a child of this neighborhood.”
Eva did not consider herself a child of any neighborhood, not when the previous six left her with memories of screaming still fresh in her mind.
The invitation came with a hand-written note from the birthday girl’s parents signed with an obscene number of smiley faces meant to charm the reclusive girl. Eva knew it was out of pity. Whispers about her bizarre hairlessness, now disguised under a poor-quality wig and drawn-on eyebrows, followed her wherever she went. She could have put the gossip to rest, explaining how goblin fire prevents the regrowth of hair follicles, but it wasn’t worth the grief.
“Do remember to smile, and to be courteous,” said her mother.
“And to sing Happy Birthday in a pleasant key,” offered her father.
Her mother shoved a wrapped package into her arms. The wig was already itching.
The thin-lipped magician bustled about his narrow flat, stacked with tomes and jars of preserved abominations, humming a peculiar tune in an off-putting key. Delightful moods were rare for the odious man, but today was a child’s birthday, and there was no greater occasion in this entertainer’s life.
Parties were his specialty, and he had done well to market himself to the unsuspecting community. His advertisements were quite cheery, promising astounding entertainment at a modest price. No good mommy or daddy could turn away such promising birthday bliss.
He packed his leather trunk with oddities and props and strapped the portable helium tank across his shoulder. He gave it a loving pat, and reassured the soul-starved spirits within it that satisfaction was just a short trolley ride away.
He arrived at the door of Mr. and Mrs. Petty, who ushered him in with vigorous clapping and grandiose praise. They did not notice the grimy clothes and cracked leather shoes, nor the unkempt nails packed with dirt. And they certainly weren’t put off by his grin when his lips sneered like a corpse to unveil teeth caked with plaque — butter-yellow. It was the off-putting tune he whistled. The Petty’s were drunk in its melody.
Eva Tippet stood in the corner of the family room as the birthday girl, Tara Petty, and her enclave of school-aged friends practiced amateurish tricks celebrated with shrill laughter. The excitement dissolved when the thin-lipped magician entered the room. The children stiffened at the sight of him.
Eva noticed how he strode with the confidence of a predator approaching an unsuspecting herd, all along whistling that morose tune. She peered at Mr. and Mrs. Petty who smiled painful grins, eyes bulging. The magician unlatched his trunk and prepared to dazzle his young audience.
“I know what you’re whistling,” Eva blurted.
The thin-lipped magician dismissed her with a flick of his hand as he set the helium tank on the table and licked the deflated latex balloons.
“I said I know what you’re whistling,” Eva repeated.
The thin-lipped magician looked up from his work. “Do you, now?”
“Yes. It’s called the ‘Seduction of Prey’.”
His eyebrows curled. “How does a little girl come to know such a title?”
“My mommy and daddy teach me all sorts of odd things. They can whistle it, too.”
“You’re being odd right now,” Tara Petty shouted. “It’s rude to be odd at somebody’s party.”
Tara’s words left a pit of cold in Eva’s stomach. She figured it was what embarrassment felt like.
“The tune is a venom, isn’t it?” Eva continued, trying to brush off the feeling. “Like a spider’s, so the prey won’t fight as you drain them.”
“Your name, girl?” he asked.
Eva made her final deduction. “You won’t whistle for us. You want us to struggle. But you don’t want mommies and daddies to interrupt. So you whistled for them instead.”
The magician’s face darkened. He’d dealt with his share of hecklers throughout his career, but his girl was no mere heckler.
“You’re going to do something horrible,” said Eva.
Tara felt her special day slipping through her fingers. She had heard enough. “You’re the one doing something horrible,” she cried. “You’re ruining my party!”
The pang of cold hit Eva once more. “Mommy and daddy said friends are important. That I have to try not to scare them. Please, try not to be scared?”
Eva pulled off her wig. The magician stared at his faint reflection in the shine of her bald head. His expression turned sour and he opened the valves of the portable tank. Tendrils of inky black vapor coiled out from the nozzle and snaked their way towards the children.
Eva turned to the audience. “Don’t breathe.”
Their cheeks inflated in panicked unison. Black tendrils slithered toward Eva. She pursed her lips and drank it in. The children struggled with their puffed cheeks growing red, never turning their eyes from the strange girl enveloped in black.
With her lungs full, Eva stepped to the baffled magician and rose on her tippy toes to offer a whisper. Her lips parted, and the black vapor seeped out, snaking down into the magician’s throat. He withered before their eyes, coiling and folding upon himself like burning paper, flaking to ash collected in a gray mound on the Petty’s carpet. The black vapor dissipated.
“You can breathe now,” said Eva.
A collective gasp burst across the room and the children toppled onto one another.
The Petty’s broke out in a robust applause. “Marvelous trick, Eva!” shouted Mrs. Petty. “We’d no idea you were part of the act.”
“Ingenious way to make new friends,” said Mr. Petty. “How do you intend on bringing him back?”
“Back?” asked Eva. “Oh, I convinced the demon vapor to eat him.”
“Right,” said Mrs. Petty. “Well, then. Everybody ready for cake?”
Mike is a writer from New Jersey. His short fiction has been published by Akashic Books, One Eye Press, Big Pulp, and others. His short comics have been published through Image Comics and APE Entertainment. His original graphic novel, Gung Ho, co-created with artist The Mico, is available on Comixology. You can follow Mike on Twitter @redfox_write.