This story is by Madeline Slovenz and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
When the curtain came down after the matinee of the community theater’s production of The Pied Piper of Hamelin, the audience applauded. It had been a packed house and the evening show was sold out too.
“Great show, everybody,” the director said. “But, wait. I need all of you to stay right here, please. Nobody’s to leave the theater before tonight’s performance. We’re snowed in.”
It had been snowing hard outside, since early morning. The forecast predicted blizzard conditions.
Her announcement was met with groans. “Really Miss Deb? We’re trapped here?” Jeremiah asked.
Someone else cried out, “All of us?”
“Yes. There’s not much I can do until the roads are plowed.”
It was a huge cast, many were children. Deb started wagging her finger. “Okay. Adult cast and crew. You can relax in the greenroom. Kids? Listen up. I want you to stay together right here on the stage.”
The adults took off and the children groaned.
“I’m hungry.” one girl griped.
“Yeah, me too,” Jeremiah said.
“Okay. Listen up, kids. Here’s what we’ll do.” She pointed to Jeremiah. “How about you do some of those mind-reading magic tricks of yours? That’ll keep the youngsters entertained until the pizza arrives.”
“Yeah! Pizza!” the children cheered.
Deb pulled Jeremiah aside. “There’s no guarantee when the delivery will arrive. Can you help me out?”
In his best theatrical voice, Jeremiah swept his hand and bowed saying, “It will be my pleasure, Miss Deb.” He was always overly dramatic. That’s why his classmates at school teased him. He didn’t really fit in at Michigan Oaks Junior High, but in the theater, he had found his place.
Jeremiah was on the spot. He had to pull some magic tricks out of thin air and entertain the children for the afternoon. He looked down at his costume, which was a red and yellow checkered cape over a long-sleeved turtle-neck top and red and yellow tights. On his head, he wore a Robin Hood type hat with a long fluffy feather. He started to worry about what he might be able to do without his usual props, top-hat and tails.
“Hey, Jeremiah, teach us some magic,” Valerie said.
“Magicians never reveal their methods,” he said.
He didn’t tell her the source of all the materials he used could be bought at Roland the Great’s Trick and Puzzle Store. She would have to learn that on her own.
“Jer-e-mi-ah” Jer-e-mi-ah!” the children chanted.
“Yeah, come on, give us some magic,” Valerie pleaded.
Jeremiah loved performing. He dreamed of one day being on the Broadway stage. His school didn’t put on plays so the community theater was the only opportunity that was available to him, and he auditioned for every show that had a role for a kid his age.
When there were no children’s roles, he hung around the theater to assist the adult actors to run lines, and helped out backstage setting props, pulling the curtain, anything to be “on the boards,” a fancy way of saying “in the theater profession.”
It was part luck, plus his talent for performance, that landed him the leading role in The Pied Piper and gave him the opportunity to unleash his hidden magical powers.
Getting that part was a coup. The man who had been cast in that role was the coach of the junior high ice hockey team, and his school had miraculously qualified for the finals out of town. Jeremiah originally had a small part as one of the townsfolk, but because he knew all the coach’s lines, the director had no choice but to cast him at the last minute.
The children in his charge were restless being cooped up on the stage. He had to act fast to reign them in. In his most theatrical voice, he announced, “Come gather ‘round for the best magic show of your life.” Of course, he was exaggerating, that was part of his regular act.
Jeremiah was a natural. His mother said it was in his genes because his great-grandfather William “Mush” Rawls had been a famous vaudeville actor with Buster Keaton in the early 1900s. But Great-grandfather Mush was not so famous that any of Jeremiah’s classmates had ever heard of him. No, Jeremiah had to make a name for himself on his own.
Using his talents to entertain the younger members of the cast was an opportunity to show off his skills to a receptive audience. It wasn’t real magic that he did. Everybody knew that. It was all about performance and style—creating the illusion, and engaging the audience. His job was keeping the audience members’ minds on anything but the trick he was about to perform. But Jeremiah didn’t have any of his usual props, not even a deck of cards. What tricks could he possibly do?
He pulled out the Pied Piper’s flute from the pocket of his costume and with a sweep and a flutter he twirled it in the air to proclaim, “I’m going to teach all of you to be mind readers!”
The kids cheered, “Yeah!”
“The first step is to find a partner and sit on the floor across from each other.” They eagerly complied and luckily they were an even number, so it all worked out. “You will learn to read your partner’s mind. It’s all about concentration,” he said.
The truth was he needed to buy some time to figure out how he could improvise some of his magic tricks with what was available in the theater. In his most professional mystical voice, he said, “Ask your partner to think of a color, an animal or a type of food. Close your eyes and concentrate.”
He was amazed at how easily they all did exactly what he asked.
“Now, bring your hands up to gently touch your partner’s forehead and let your thoughts connect through your fingertips.”
Jeremiah was making all this up as he went along, but they were young and didn’t know any better. He quietly side-coached them whispering, “Concentrate. Think hard. You can do it.”
One by one, there were small bursts of delight popping out all over the stage.
“You read my mind!”
“You’re a genius!”
The room was charged with intense energy. Every single one of the children was reading minds. How could that be?
Not able to believe what was happening, Jeremiah was suspicious. Were they pretending? Or actually reading minds? He had to test them to be sure and sat down across from Valerie. “I’m thinking of a number between one and a hundred.”
She put her fingers on his temples, closed her eyes and scrunched up her face. “I am getting a two-digit number. It’s coming in. Hold it. It’s . . . it’s, um . . . it’s thirty-seven,” she declared, then opened her eyes to see Jeremiah’s face in total shock.
“It is! You read my mind!”
One by one, each child read his mind, perfectly. How could that be? Jeremiah knew there wasn’t real magic to his mind-reading tricks. He had only acted like a magician. He was a performer, an illusionist.
Deb came back in, put her hand on Jeremiah’s shoulder, and said, “Thank you.”
“Something . . . um . . . I.” Still baffled, he tried to speak, but Deb had moved on.
“Okay, everybody,” Deb said. “Pizza and pop in the greenroom. Forty-five minutes to places.”
Nobody moved. The children had been antsy and hungry before their confinement, but they looked up with their eyes glazed over and jaws dropped slack.
“What’s going on? Aren’t you hungry?” she asked. Her voice had lowered and sounded concerned.
Jeremiah noticed the peculiar state he had left the kids in. It was like they were in a trance. He had to act fast so he stood and faced the dazed children, pulled out his flute, and started to play. One by one the children came back to life.
When Jeremiah started to dance, the children formed a conga line to follow him as he snaked around the stage. When he dipped to the left, they all dipped to the left. And when he swung to the right, they followed suit.
He stopped at the open door to the backstage and with a sweep of the flute he repeated what Deb had said earlier, “Pizza and pop in the greenroom. Forty-five minutes to places.” Magically they all filed out to grab dinner. All but Jeremiah.
“Come on. Pizza’s getting cold,” Deb said.
“I’ll be right there, Miss Deb. I have something to do”
He put his flute back in his pocket and sat down on a tree stump that was part of the set. He needed to think. Resting his elbows on his knees, he cradled his head in his hands.
The blasting sound of a snow-blower outside brought him out of his meditation. He let out an audible, “Whew,” as he shook his head. “What did I teach them? Everybody knows it’s a trick. Right?”