One morning, he could not find his father. His van was in the garage and his shoes were on the welcome mat, but he was not breathing beneath the covers in his bedroom, or scrambling his breakfast egg, or toweling off in the bathroom, or examining his equipment in the basement. On the kitchen table, his cards were fanned out, face down, in a standard spread, except for the Jack of Hearts, which was face up, like the climax of a trick. In its margins, a message was double underlined:
I AWAIT IN THE MAGIC PAWN
His father had a clown’s face: brown tufts of hair so thin you could see his scalp, a nose that seemed slightly heavy on the left, a pudgy face that creased into sections when he smiled. He performed around the state, driving out in his humpbacked gray van for days at a time, leaving his kids to cook and clean and wait. When he left, he would leave things like this behind—a house of cards behind the living room couch, a fake foot in the toilet bowl, a cereal box full of red strap-on noses in the pantry—to take his place. He never mentioned them while he was here, and pretended not to know about them when his kids asked.
The Magic Pawn was a small pawn shop beside Wendy’s Chinese and the laundromat. Out front, planks drooped over the edge of a bench shedding its paint. Hanging lopsided on the front door was a sign announcing,
Out to Lunch!
Will be Back:
above a clock that had no hands. The windows were dark in the sun and when he tried the door, it shuddered but didn’t open. A note was tacked above the clock.
He waited outside his sister’s door, and when she came out, hair frizzy from bed, he asked her, “Have you seen Dad?”
“No,” she said. “Why?”
He led her to the kitchen.
“He’s probably at work,” she said. “That store is so old.”
“It closed,” he said. “It moved to Carthage.”
“It moved where?”
“Carthage,” he said.
She looked at the cards, then went to the fridge for orange juice. “Carthage was destroyed, like, a thousand years ago,” she said.
“Well that’s what it says,” he said.
He looked it up at the library computer. Carthage was a town in Missouri sitting flat in the middle of its own hundred mile no man’s land. What was his father doing there? He drove home, his head numb.
That night the house was strange. When he woke at three in the morning he heard no toilet flushes, no footsteps of his father easing into bed. He got up and walked around, listening to owls crying, like they had gags on and were trying very hard to tell him something he needed to know. He stuck his head through the curtains of a window, watched bugs covering the face of the midget lamp on their street. The house felt drained, the way a cabin felt on a winter morning after the fireplace had burned itself out.
“So what if it’s a real place,” she said when he told her in the morning. “Do you really think he’s going to be there, waiting for us? He’s at work. Just wait.”
“He’s not at work,” he said. “The van’s still here.”
“He could have taken a taxi,” she said. “Or a bus, or a train.”
“Why would he do that?”
“How am I supposed to know?”
“Look, I don’t want to argue with you,” he said.
“Neither do I,” she said, and slammed her bedroom door.
When two days passed and her father did not return, she began to worry. “Are you sure he didn’t say anything to you?” she asked him. “Anything weird?” But the last time he spoke with his father had been almost a week ago, when his father had asked him, out of no context, whether he preferred live bait or synthetic bait. There hadn’t been a hint of anything.
They had begun to find things around the house, things that shouldn’t have been there if he was working. His equipment, a saw, a coffin, a massive, dull guillotine, fake blocks of ice, fake hands and feet, eight long ribbons tied in a bundle—they occupied their usual places. His toothbrush was still there, bristles down, the toothpaste in its spot to the right of the cup but the left of the floss. Until she turned it off, his alarm jump-started to life every morning, blabbering like there was nothing else in the world.
After five days the bills came. They had never paid bills before. He took two twenties from his father’s wallet, which was still in the first drawer in the kitchen cabinet, beside his keys, and stuffed it into the envelope and shipped it off.
They had begun cooking their meals—spaghetti, grilled cheese, ramen. After a week, their father’s wallet had run out and he went into his room and shook the bills out of a smelly, tearing copy of Beowulf and drove to the gas station and bought another twenty-four pack of ramen and six loaves of bread and several jars of peanut butter and jelly. When he came in and saw her sitting at the kitchen table where they had not moved the cards, he set down one bag, then the other.
Her eyes were pink in the corners where they should have been white. She looked down at the cards.
“I know,” she said. That was all. She shook her head, swiped her hand across the spread of cards and closed them into a ruffled deck. Her father had taught her how to do that.
He packed a suitcase full of clothes, his tackle box and rod, the cards. She brought the necklace her father had bought her on her sixteenth birthday, and soap, and bug spray, and shampoo, and a first aid kit, and an umbrella, and sunscreen. As he began backing out of the garage, she stopped him and brought her duffel bag onto the driveway and checked everything one more time.
They drove past the fishing store, the concrete library, across the bridge, brown waters frothing beneath. They drove past the McDonald’s, into open country, a damp morning with the sky still waking from a nighttime rainstorm, cloud shadows like the forms of sea monsters coasting just beneath the waves. They drove until they saw things they didn’t recognize—a bald mound in the middle of a field, a tractor’s rusty skeleton abandoned in a roadside ditch. They drove until static underlined the radio, Zac Brown’s voice straining through as if he were fighting to keep his head above water. They drove until she fell asleep in the passenger seat, head bobbing over the map draped on the dashboard. They drove through the night until silently, she put a hand on his arm and guided the wheel toward a gas station lot where they slept in their seats like passengers in a motionless airplane.
They drove in the morning before light. Now it was corn and corn, a solipsistic country station playing for hours with no sign of a DJ. Everywhere, the corn watched them like legions of scarecrows and storage towers like giant tin hats sat in the corn and shone. “We can always eat the corn,” he joked. She wrinkled her nose. “Corn?” It was alive, no doubt. Row after row of it vanishing into the sky, leaves perfectly still. The tin towers sat in the corn and the corn was everywhere, and alive, maybe more alive than any of them.
By the time Carthage was a glint in the distant green, his thighs were raw from sitting. On the outskirts of the town, houses that could not have had more than two rooms were being swallowed alive by the country, yet somehow bright pink baby toys littered their porches, as if there was nowhere else to put them.
They counted out their dollars at a diner, ordered burgers. The waitress smiled impatiently as she took their orders. The burgers were plain, the meat tasteless. He finished his in a few bites and was still hungry.
“Brian,” she said, leaning over the table to talk even though he could hear her perfectly. “Have you been wondering if Dad maybe isn’t coming back?”
He looked at her. “What are you talking about?”
She put down her burger. “Maybe he’s just, you know,” she said. “Gone.”
“That’s retarded,” he said. “People don’t just disappear.”
She bit her top lip, looked down at her plate, but said nothing. After a while she nudged the plate toward him. “Do you want this?” she asked.
“No. It’s yours.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“You’re just saying that. Eat it.”
“I don’t want to,” she said. Minutes passed with them sitting in their sticky booth, the only ones in the restaurant. The waitress came.
“Can you tell me where the Magic Pawn is?” he asked her.
“No magic pawns around here,” she said, putting the bill on the table. “You can pay up front.”
He looked at his sister, unmoving, but she wouldn’t meet his eye. After a while he took her plate and slid it toward himself, knowing that eating another would only make him hungrier.
By the time they left the diner, it was dark, and there were no street lamps. He drove around Carthage.
“Watch your side,” he said.
“She said it wasn’t here.”
“So? It just moved. She probably doesn’t know about it.” He rolled down the window to squint at some building beside the street. “We just have to ask someone else.”
“We’ll find someone.”
“There’s nobody to find.”
“Are you watching your side?” he said. “Watch your side!”
“Brian,” she said, “it’s pitch black.”
“Just keeping looking a little longer,” he said.
“You can’t see anything.”
He kept driving. She grabbed the wheel. “Will you stop!” she said. He jerked back, the car swerved, the tires shrieked. He stamped the brake and the car bucked to a stop, perpendicular to the road.
“What the hell are you doing?” he roared. “What’s your problem?”
She was wresting back her breath in slow gasps.
“Just,” she said. “Just stop. Please stop.”
He put his hands on the wheel. “How can we find anything if you don’t have any patience?”
“You’re scaring me,” she said. “Brian please. I want to go home.”
“Not until we find him,” he said.
“Brian,” she said, “he’s gone.”
But he didn’t reply, didn’t even seem to hear her. Stepping on the gas, he righted the car and drove on down the road.
She was already asleep by the time he parked the car in a weedy lot and sat listening to the grating of summer bugs. He stepped out of the car. It was a warm night and the air smelled wet. He eased the door shut, walked closer to the old shops ringing the lot.
John’s Groceries, one of them read. Diner, said another. Magic Pawn, read a third.
He stared at it, then came closer, put his fingers against the glass. How had he not noticed this? He had looked everywhere, or so he thought. He moved sideways along the glass. He could not see anything inside—no shelves, no counters, nothing on display. Only darkness. He came to the door, on which a sign dangled.
He read it twice, took it in his hands, dropped it. He pressed his face to the glass and peered inside, but there was nothing. He moved trancelike back to the car, then stopped midstep and grabbed a loose chunk of asphalt and hurled it at the window. The glass shuddered, the asphalt clunked to the ground. He looked at it for a second, and went back into the car.
He remembered the Magic Pawn as a library of the impossible. Rows of shelves intersected other rows at right angles; strange sallow bags, which he later realized were skins, hung from the ceilings; potions of every color and supposed effect were displayed behind glass. Fake body parts had their own section, as did trick guillotines, plastic knives that looked razor sharp, spikes inflated with some stiff concoction that shrunk when you slammed your hand into it. There were lucky charms and unlucky charms, clown noses and bear noses and alien noses, coffins and cages and live doves. The owner of the shop, a shrunken man who could have fit into a treasure chest, sniffed often and gave them discounts on everything.
On her sixteenth birthday, his father had bought her a charm that had been on display for weeks. It was a charm, he said, that would allow her to never be lost. Although she asked again and again how much it had cost, he would not say. He had never been stingy about money, buying them what they asked for and never telling them anything about the price. Money, to the children, had become a thing like the Ace of Spaces, able to be hidden, kept out of sight, but made to appear at the top of the deck with no more than a wave of the hand.
It was only when she finished high school that they realized there was no money for college. Never had been. That day he had dropped out of tenth grade and begun working at Mike’s Fishing & Friends. That night, his father had tried to beat himself, until Brian, woken by the sound of smacking, took the knotted rope out of his hands and wrestled him to the ground and told him to get his ass back to bed.
When she woke, he was driving and the map was pinned to the dashboard. It was still night.
“Are we going home?’ she said, her voice raw.
“No,” he said. “It moved again.”
He did not hear her for a long time, and thought she had gone back to sleep, until he heard her breathe in sharply, and again, and when he looked her eyes were closed and she was crying.
All day she said nothing. She sat in the passenger seat and stared out the window as farmland melted to countryside melted to broken stretches of farmland, tin huts winking, white farmers’ manors brown-specked as if from the mud spray of a passing car.
In the evening, they reached the place where Welton was to be. The sun sat in a hazy sky like a small Jupiter and the grass grew so tall it curled over itself. A dirt road, at times melding with the brush, slunk away from the pavement. He parked the car and stepped out. It was dead silent. He picked his way down the road. Deeper in a lake hid under the overhanging grass, and though bugs were dogfighting along the cattails, they made no sound. Twenty yards from the water, he found a plank lying under the grass, and further on was the base of an outhouse barely higher than the grass. The sun was a perfect red circle and for miles in any direction there was nothing but grass and evening. The town of Welton had sunk back into the earth, and its people had left it long ago.
When he returned to the car, she was sitting beside it. His hunting knife lay in her lap and his tackle box lay open beside her.
“Julie,” he said.
She looked up at him. His head felt very light.
“It’s time to go home,” he said.
He looked at her. Why was she sitting like that?
“It’s gone,” he said. “There is no Magic Pawn.”
“We can’t go anywhere,” she said. She leaned to the side. Behind her the tire was gashed open like parted lips. She had torn it, afraid he would never stop searching.
“Misdirection,” his father had said to him once. “That, Brian, is the art of magic.” To manipulate what another sees is to manipulate their world itself, to transform, by the process of erasure, a reality into a dream. At the brink of nightfall, an old woman with missing teeth and a car that smelled of cinnamon and old hot leather would appear like a comet in the distance where one edge of the road collided with the other, where a car was but a dot, and a person, less. But before she did, he would take out his rod and tackle box and cast his line into the lake that once bordered Welton. He would watch the bobber and wait while she watched the road and waited, and it would not be long before a fish came seizing out of the water, its scales like dry sandpaper at first touch. He would grip it hard, unhook it, hold it in his hands. Its eyes would be flat and depthless but in them he would see the opacity of a thing unexplained, a thing impossible, a thing so strange and marvelous it must be from another world. He would be hungry, so hungry, but set it in the water anyway, not tossing it, but placing it, so that it would hang face-up for a time as if dead before jerking once, righting itself, and vanishing into the depths of the lake.