AfterDark publishes horror stories in serial format. This is parts 1 and 2 of the newest story there, "The End of Light."
Sometimes, in the years that came after, people would look up and wonder: What if the sun had actually been starting to go out before we arrested him? That is, they would look up at the now-dark sky in the now-freezing air that they struggled to exist in, and wonder: What if we were wrong?
Others thought something else. They wondered: What if he could have helped, for real?
* * * * *
Joe was a stage magician. A trickster. He engaged in sleight-of-hand and misdirection and other fool-the-eye shenanigans. But he dreamed of more. He dreamed of becoming the greatest magician, the magician who would capture the imaginations of the public the way only a few entertainers ever had.
There was Elvis, of course. Elvis could have taken over the world, if he'd done it right. Joe sat at a stoplight on his way to a show and ticked them off in his mind. Elvis was an entertainer who everybody knew and who was more famous than anyone else. And the Beatles. He clicked a second long, wiry finger up, making a peace sign on the red tuxedo pants leg he wore in the rarely-hot San Francisco sun. Oprah. That's three. Three fingers, and the light was green, and he drove on, tuxedo shirt crisp and silver in the afternoon sunlight that almost never reached the ground in San Francisco, usually blocked by buildings and by fog and by clouds and by the general climate.
Not too much longer to the theater where he'd booked a weeklong series of shows that would begin in just 5 days. Ads had been running on television, even, promoting this show to a national audience. 7 shows, each with a bigger trick ending them. 7 shows, billed as The Beginning.
Joe had gotten on the Conan O'Brien show, last night.
"The beginning of what?" Conan had asked him.
"The next phase," Joe had said, "Of human existence." This was part of the spiel, the part the advertising guys and his agent and even his girlfriend, had loved. Joe had mixed in some new-age-y stuff and mixed in some religious elements (carefully, of course -- no need to invite trouble) and gotten new patter and had begun selling his magic not as tricks but as interventions from the next phase of existence into this.
It had been big. The first couple of shows, in little towns around California, had begun drawing buzz. He'd even made it into not just Entertainment Weekly ("We might someday put him on the cover as the first magician to ever be there..." the article had said. "Keep watching his act...") but also a blurb in Newsweek, mentioning that he was the "Hot New Stage Show" in California.
On Conan's show, he'd said: "I've found a way, Conan, to move beyond the laws and energy we know and use, and tap into what's next. The Mayans knew it -- most of the ancients did -- that something big is going to happen. It's going to happen in 2012. And that's almost here. And what's Next," Joe always said Next so as to announce that it was capitalized, "Is amazing."
He'd paused. Conan O'Brien, for his part, had been skeptical in his own mind. He'd sat back and thought That's a load of horseshit, but something made him not say that. As he looked at Joe, as Conan had looked at Joe and thought What kind of one-named entertainer goes just by Joe?, he'd also thought: there's something about this guy.
Joe had ended his pause: "In the Next phase of our existence, there will be new energies, new ways of thinking, of doing, of being, Conan. And I've found out how to tap those now. So I'm giving a preview of sorts. Starting June 23, I'll be doing 7 shows. Just 7. I have to limit it to 7 because of the danger of going beyond 7. But each show will be different -- you can come and see all 7 and not see the Joee phenomenon" -- Joe didn't use trick -- "Twice. And each one will end with a bigger revelation than the night before."
"Those sound excellent," Conan had said. In his mind, he'd thought again this guy's a little different. Not bad different... And Conan had said "I can't wait to see those tricks."
Joe had pulled two tickets out of his pocket, to the roaring applause of the audience, and handed them to Conan. The clapping nearly drowned out his tagline:
"It's not tricks. It's the beginning of our new life."
Conan had pocketed the tickets, thinking to himself that he wouldnâ€™t be there, wouldnâ€™t be at any hack magic show, and wouldnâ€™t have booked a magician onto The Tonight Show, not for anything. Heâ€™d put the tickets in his pocket and looked out at the crowd as Joe had looked out, too, and had thought to himself this: Not gonna see me there. Then he, saw the crowd standing and applauding and he looked back at Joe. He thought, but didnâ€™t say: You got a standing ovation? For giving me tickets? You didnâ€™t even do a trickâ€¦
Joe had seen Conan looking at him, and had said: â€œThe beginning. Of our new life. Come and see the show.â€
Joe now pulled into the back alley behind the theater, parking his car near the stage entrance for the first rehearsal. He stopped ticking off entertainers in his mind, having gotten stalled trying to decide if Hulk Hogan had been a world-changer. True, heâ€™d not done much, but there was no denying that everybody knew who he was. That was something in and of itself, wasnâ€™t it?
There was a mousy looking woman outside the door, wearing a white blouse and gray skirt and with limp, flat hair, holding a clipboard and a cell phone in her hands.
â€œMrâ€¦â€ she said as he closed his door.
â€œJoe,â€ said Joe. â€œItâ€™s just Joe.â€ It had been, he knew, Joe Krzyzewski, but he didnâ€™t acknowledge that ever, and had no reason to, having legally changed his name 7 years earlier to Joe.
â€œIâ€™m from The Tonight Show,â€ the woman said. She held her hand out. Joe took it and looked at her.
â€œWe appreciated your inviting Mr. Oâ€™Brien last night and after talking it through today, decided that he would take you up on it.â€
â€œSo they sent you up here on short notice, huh?â€
â€œYes,â€ She said. She smiled. â€œI got up at 5 a.m. Iâ€™m exhausted.â€
It was four p.m. She looked tired, he realized. The sun beat down on them, hot and close. â€œHow long have you been waiting?â€ he asked.
She shrugged. â€œNot long,â€ she said. She pointed at the door. â€œThey said in the front of the theater to wait back here.â€
â€œWell, come on in. Iâ€™ve got a few things to look over and Iâ€™m doing a rehearsal on the stage tonight. Why did a producer have to come up here to let me know that Conan is going to come?â€ He figured he should refer to Mr. Oâ€™Brien as Conan if they were to be equals.
â€œWeâ€™d like to film some of it.â€ Joe had used the stage-door key heâ€™d been given and opened the door, letting them into the cool, slightly-damp, dark back stage area of the theater. He closed the door behind them. â€œYou know Mr. Oâ€™Brienâ€™s method. Heâ€™ll come and mess around, make jokes, spend a day or two doing that and then put it on the air. The shows donâ€™t start until 8 p.m., right?â€
â€œExcept for the last one,â€ Joe said. â€œThat one starts at 6.â€ They walked around a few props and dressing rooms and out onto the stage, the large, dark auditorium looming out beyond them, lit only by dim lamps on the walls. â€œIâ€™m glad heâ€™s coming,â€ Joe said. â€œItâ€™s going to be spectacular.â€
â€œHe was impressed with the crowd reaction you got last night, he said.â€ She looked around on the stage. â€œThereâ€™s not many props here.â€
â€œNo. No, thereâ€™s not.â€ Joe had brought in with him a case and he set it down, now, on the stage. He looked around and then up at her. â€œCan you step over there, please?â€ he asked her, pointing a little more towards what would be stage right, off by the curtains. She did that, saying:
â€œIâ€™m Jackie, by the way.â€
â€œNice to meet you, Jackie,â€ Joe said and unclicked the locks on the case â€“ which was itself slightly larger than a briefcase but slightly smaller than a suitcase. Joe lifted the lid up, keeping it between him and Jackie and she watched as he held his chin in one hand, kneeling, and his other hand traced around in the air, as though he wasnâ€™t sure what to take out of the case. She watched him and wondered if he was putting on a show for her now, trying to be mysterious. His brow was furrowed by his face appeared uninvolved in the thinking, a blank slate.
Joe stared into the briefcase. He looked up at Jackie and said: â€œToday, itâ€™s a briefcase.â€ He didnâ€™t elaborate on what that meant. Then he rubbed his hands together, briskly, set his face, and plunged both hands in.
Jackie watched as he pulled a piece of ordinary-looking white chalk out, thicker than some chalk, about the size of the sidewalk chalks available in most drugstores and toystores. This one was white. Joe pulled it out, she thought, a little quickly and without a flourish. He quickly snapped the case shut but left it there, in the center of the stage.
â€œOkay,â€ he said, and stood up. He looked around. â€œStay over there for a bit. What would be involved in this shooting?â€ he asked. Shooting? Jackie wondered for a second, as she watched Joe pace, and he looked up at her as he stood near the front of the stage. â€œWell?â€ he asked.
â€œOh.â€ She suddenly got what he meant. She watched as he walked back towards the back of the stage in measured paces. â€œNot much. Weâ€™d scout out in the next few days. We were thinking maybe do some backstage stuff, show the theater, the preparations, and then maybe some stuff on opening night, too.â€
Joe stood now at the back of the stage, chalk in hand. He bent down and looked at the floor. He held the chalk awkwardly.
â€œDonâ€™t you have stage hands?â€ Jackie asked. â€œAssistants?â€
Joe shook his head and held up his hand.
â€œHang on a second,â€ he said. He said it simply but Jackie hushed up anyway, hearing something in his voice. Joe closed his eyes again. She saw him shake his head and move his free, non-chalk holding hand in the air, in the way that someone trying to do arithmetic in his head might. Heâ€™s putting on an act, she thought.
It didnâ€™t seem that way, that he was putting on an act, just as it hadnâ€™t seemed that heâ€™d done anything really spectacular last night on the show; before heâ€™d left, heâ€™d promised a trick to Conanâ€™s audience if they gave him another standing ovation. The crowd had leaped to its feet and begun applauding, roaring and cheering and Conan had looked out at the crowd, amazed at the reaction this Joe had gotten.
Jackie had been backstage, too, and had watched from the wings as the crowd had stood, beginning with some in the middle of the lower level of seats until eventually they all had been standing. Joe had remained seated next to Conan, calmly smiling at the crowd. Theyâ€™d eventually quieted down as heâ€™d waved a hand at them.
â€œOkay, so letâ€™s see the trick,â€ Conan had said, wondering what it could be; this Joe had arrived without any equipment at all, just a dusty old duffel bag that heâ€™d brought out onto the stage with him.
The crowd waited expectantly as Joe took a sip of his coffee, the cup that had been placed on the desk, and Joe then looked out at them.
â€œIâ€™ll see you all opening night,â€ he said. Then heâ€™d looked at one person in front of him, a young man wearing a plaid shirt, and said â€œCheck your shirt pocket.â€
The guy had looked, and pulled out a ticket, identical to the tickets that Joe had given Conan. Heâ€™d gasped, surprised. The remainder of the audience had sat, wondering: Is that the trick?
Jackie watched now, as Joe finished whatever heâ€™d been mentally thinking about and began walking backwards in a crouch, chalk touched to the stage. It was, more or less, in the center of the stage and he traced a line from the back wall up towards the front. She was sure he was doing some kind of act for her but she held her breath anyway, waiting to see. As he got near the center of the stage, she noticed that the chalk line was perfectly straight. And she noticed that Joeâ€™s hands were darker â€“ sunburnt seeming.
â€œYou,â€ Joe had said on the show last night. Heâ€™d pointed to a woman on the aisle, a little further back. â€œCheck your purse.â€ The woman had opened her purse and pulled out a ticket, seeming genuinely wondrous, holding it up and laughing. Jackie wondered: Howâ€™d he get those people in the audience? Had he been talking to the crowds lined up outside. â€œYouâ€™ll want to go get tickets for all seven shows,â€ Joe told the lady as the camera man zoomed in on her smile and surprised expression.
Then Joe had turned back to Conan. â€œNot bad, right?â€
â€œWell,â€ Conan said, not wanting to cast aspersions on his guest, but Joe hadnâ€™t listened and instead had turned to the audience. â€œHeâ€™s not convinced,â€ Joe said, loudly. Heâ€™d turned towards the band. â€œMax â€“ why donâ€™t you guys all check your wallets?â€ Max had looked confused but had pulled his wallet out. Before he could get it open, the guitarist had said:
â€œHey!â€ and his yelp of surprise was genuine. Jackie could hear it. The other band members, too, each had a ticket in their wallet. As the audience clapped, hesitantly, not sure if this was part of a gag or a set-up, Joe had turned and said:
â€œStill not convinced? Everyone: Check your pockets and wallet and purse.â€ Thereâ€™d been a rustle and mumble and shuffling and one by one surprised gasps or hollers or Heys! Or Wow and then a groundswell of applause had come up as people realized that they, too, had tickets, and they were not part of any act or set up or gimmick. Jackie had watched, backstage, and had, on the spur of the moment, checked her own jeans pocket.
Sheâ€™d had no ticket.
She watched now as Joe continued crouch-walking backwards towards the front of the stage, tracing his line, his eyes closed, she saw, his hands definitely sunburnt. She looked at the case again. Powder? Spray-tan in the case? He was tricking her.
One, two, three steps more and Joe stood up and opened his eyes, the chalk line traced all the way to the front of the stage. â€œThere,â€ he said, and looked over at Jackie. â€œNow, you were saying?â€ He asked, casually.
Jackie looked from the chalk line to him and then dropped her clipboard. â€œWhatâ€¦â€ she said, bending to pick it up and walking over to him.
â€œWhat?â€ Joe said.
Jackie pointed down and said â€œHow are you doing that?â€
They both looked down, then, and saw what had startled Jackie: In drawing the line, Joe had backed up and backed up until heâ€™d ended up where he was now: Standing, chalk in one sunburnt hand and the other empty, but not on the stage. Instead, he was two feet off the stage, floating in thin air.
Joe looked down and then back up and said â€œA magician never reveals his secrets.â€