The night is perfect and glorious and sparkling, too beautiful to be real. Like magic.
Anna is ten years old, and this is the fanciest birthday party she’s ever attended. The castle-like home’s sprawling grounds host a miniature Ferris wheel, unicorn rides, a cotton candy machine, and a stage, all surrounded by twinkling lights and spotlights twirling into the indigo clouds. She was invited not because she knows the birthday girl, but because her dad’s latest hotel is a huge success, the most popular hotel in Vegas, and because her family just moved into a similar mansion down the street, leaving their old three-bedroom ranch behind. Her dad is over by the pizza ovens, surrounded by smiling strangers desperate to be his friend.
Anna is very much hoping to experience something similar.
It’s early summer, and next year, she’ll start at a new private school with . . . well, basically all the girls at this party. Anna looks around, nervously fusses with her tiara. The elegant invitation looked like it came straight from Cinderella’s castle, and it proclaimed this to be a Princess Party. Anna has therefore dressed up as a princess. Her mom insisted on a professional fitting for her dress, which has a huge skirt with rainbow layers of tulle, as well as an updo and makeup appointment at the salon. Anna’s mom is taking their recent change in status very seriously, and Anna wants to impress her new classmates, so she went along with it.
She doesn’t see any kids her age, though--just the adults on the patio and dozens of little kids running everywhere, shouting, trailed by frazzled nannies. Following the sound of a booming pop song, she ends up at a pool so big her old house could’ve fit inside it. There are grottoes and slides and a diving board and a DJ. Two large groups of kids around her age cluster in tight circles on either side of the pool, girls on one side and boys on the other. Anna is closest to the boys’ side, and there’s one boy, with perfectly floppy blond hair and ice blue eyes who’s so beautiful she thinks he must be a movie star. He’s the leader, the one all the others are clustered around, and he looks at her with curiosity.
Anna puts on her best, most confident smile and says, “Hi.”
“Hi,” he says back.
Someone gasps, and the girls sashay over to the boys’ side of the pool, circling Anna like wolves and clutching drinks that look alcoholic but surely aren’t.
“Are you flirting with my boyfriend? At my birthday party? Josh, was she flirting with you?”
Anna freezes and realizes she’s made a huge mistake. The birthday girl is furious with her. No one else is wearing a princess dress, a tiara, or even a token touch of celebration.
Tank tops and short shorts with heeled sandals are the unspoken dress code. The girls remind her of matching gingerbread cookies, their hair in flat, smooth shades of honey and gold and their skin deeply tan. They wear makeup--fake eyelashes, shiny lip gloss--like they’re in high school, not fifth grade. The boys look athletic and untouchable, and now that Anna has been singled out, they too stare, silent and judging.
“We just said hi,” the beautiful boy says with a shrug. “No big deal.”
Anna is frozen in place, knowing in this moment that everything about her is wrong. Her dress, her face, even her unlightened hair. All the kids stare at her with secondhand embarrassment or outright hostility. In the silence, as they wait to see what Anna will do, one girl cackles behind a manicured hand.
“I’m Anna Alonso. My dad is Daniel Alonso. We RSVP’d--”
“Oh, so your dad has that tacky new hotel. My dad made me invite you. How old are you? Like, six?”
The birthday girl’s mouth twists in a mocking smile. There are more cackles and titters. The girls openly glare at Anna, look her up and down, and she wants to die. She should not have agreed with her father’s request to come. She should not have allowed her mother to doll her up like a baby. She should have begged her older sister, Emily, to come. Everyone likes Emily, and Emily knows how to fit in. If Emily was here, Anna wouldn’t be the object of mockery. Emily wouldn’t let anyone speak to Anna like that. Maybe she would’ve told Anna not to wear this stupid dress.
But no. Emily was mad at Anna and ignoring her, and now Anna’s reputation is ruined before she’s even set foot in school.
The twinkling lights fade away. The scent of popcorn goes rancid. The night is dizzying now, huge and threatening and intolerable.
Without answering, Anna turns and marches away from the vicious girls and untouchable boys posing by the perfect pool.
“So embarrassing,” a girl says behind her.
“So immature,” says another.
“Oh my God, if that was me, I would move.”
Anna won’t turn around, won’t let them see her cry. She stomps past the squeaky Ferris wheel that no one is riding. She gives a wide berth to the unicorn rides, noting that the ponies’ horns have elastic straps and their manure looks like any other manure. She sidesteps hired princesses in ball gowns with visible zippers, sweat smearing the heavy makeup around their wigs. There must be a corner of this enormous yard that offers some escape from the wretched girls and their cruel whispers.
There. She spies a gazebo in a far corner.
It’s wrapped in lights like a fly in a spider’s web, like everything else, but half the bulbs are out, leaving a convenient slice of shadow. Anna slides onto the bench, her skirt catching on the rough wood, and sighs in relief, slumping down so that no one will see her and do that horrible thing adults do where they ask in a singsong voice what’s wrong.
The tears won’t wait any longer. They pour out, and she scrubs at the glitter on her cheeks, the bubblegum-pink lipstick on her lips. She would yank down her hair, but she knows it’s held in place by a thousand bobby pins and a gallon of hair spray.
Her hands come away smeared with black and pink and iridescent glitter.
Oh no. She’s still got to walk out of this party next to her father. She’s a complete mess, and he’s going to be furious at her for making him look bad. Her job here was to present well and make friends--he made that perfectly clear--and she is an enormous failure.
“Pick a card, any card.”
Anna looks up, tears streaming and snot bubbling, to find a magician standing there.
Or, more accurately, a man with white hair dressed like an old-fashioned magician, right down to the dusty tailcoat and tall black hat. Anna is certain that the girls would have horrible things to say about him, so maybe that’s why he’s also in this dark corner of the yard. She looks back toward the pool, terrified that the other kids will see her talking to what amounts to a clown.
With an aggrieved sigh, she selects a card from the perfect fan he presents. “Am I supposed to look at it?”
The man smiles through his curling white mustache. “Of course. One of us needs to know what it is!”
Hiding the card behind her hand, Anna turns it over. It’s the queen of diamonds, but instead of the usual harsh-faced royalty drawn in stark lines of red and black, there’s an elegant yellow canary wearing an ornate gold crown and surrounded by branches with delicate white blossoms. The intricate illustration is pressed into the thick paper, and the card feels old and important.
“Now put it back in, wherever you like.”
Anna wants the magician to leave and let her be miserable in peace, but she knows he won’t go away until the trick is over, so she shoves the card into the fan in a different place from where she took it. The magician shifts the queen back into the deck and moves the cards this way and that, shuffling and ruffling them, stacking them and cutting them and causing them to fly from one hand to the other like a line of ducklings. An hour ago, this trick would’ve been intriguing and exciting, but right now, Anna only sees useless practice and trickery.
She realizes with dull finality that magic isn’t real and never was.
“Is this your card?” The man holds up a card with a white rabbit--the king of hearts--and Anna shakes her head.
“How about this one?” He holds up another canary card. The king of diamonds--close, but no cigar--and again, Anna shakes her head. The magician deflates a bit and stares down at his cards as if they’ve somehow betrayed him. “They must be feeling stubborn today,” he mutters as if to himself before looking up at her brightly. “Do you have any encouragement for them, maybe give them a tap for luck?” He holds out the perfectly stacked deck in both hands, as if offering her a beautifully wrapped gift.
Anna glances around to make sure none of the vicious girls are nearby. “You can do it, buddy,” she says softly, staring at the neat stack of cards. She taps the top one, and it sticks to her finger. When she turns it over, it’s the queen of diamonds. “Wow. Good trick.” She pastes on a smile and holds out the card, hoping not to hurt the magician’s feelings. “Thank you.”
But he doesn’t go away. He takes her card and puts the deck away in his jacket and cocks his head. He’s an unusual sort of man; he should seem very phony, like everything else about this party, and yet there’s a heaviness to the cloth of his jacket, a subtle shine to his hat. Somehow, he seems more real than anything else here.
“Not a believer, eh?” he asks.
Anna shakes her head, and he leans in, conspiratorial.
“But I bet you’d like to be.”
She shrugs. Her feelings are too complex and private and new to explain to some random man paid by the hour to walk around a spoiled brat’s party.
“You know . . .” He reaches into one sleeve and pulls out a brightly colored handkerchief, and then another and another, dozens of them piling up at his feet. “We think we know what’s possible, but the role of the magician is to prove otherwise.”
Anna feels a new wave of tears threaten. “It’s all fake,” she mutters. “All of it.”
The man has run out of handkerchiefs, and his white-gloved hand cups the last one as if he’s caught a firefly. He holds his closed fist out, palm down.
“What if I could make you believe?” His tufty white eyebrows shoot up.
“You can’t. But thanks for the trick.” Anna looks away, hoping he’ll take the hint.
“Ah, well. Can’t blame an old man for trying. Enjoy the party.” He opens his hand and the last handkerchief flutters to the ground. With a tip of his hat, he walks away.
When he’s gone, Anna looks down at the heap of handkerchiefs he’s left there--crimson and goldenrod and emerald and indigo, rich and silky--a mess someone else will have to clean up, once the party is over. She decides to scoop up the whole mass of them and toss them in one of the conveniently placed garbage bins before one of the other kids notices the motley pile, but when she stoops to gather the handkerchiefs, that last one catches her eye. It’s all balled up, snowy white, different from the others in size, shape, and texture. And she’s fairly certain it dropped with a heaviness it shouldn’t possess.
She glances around to make sure she’s still alone before plucking up the white handkerchief and undoing the knots. Nestled within is an earring, a simple golden hoop.
Anna goes still, every hair on her body rising, her feet numb and her hands shaking so hard she nearly drops her prize.
Three days ago, she lost one of Emily’s earrings, a special gold hoop her sister had received as part of a pair for her fifteenth birthday. In those three days, Anna’s beloved older sister and best friend, usually kind and sweet and doting, has not spoken a word to her. She was supposed to come to this party and help Anna make friends. She refused.
The past three days have been the three worst days of Anna’s life--and that was before tonight. If Anna gives Emily this earring, this earring that inexplicably matches Emily’s missing earring exactly, then perhaps her sister will talk to her again. It can just be a small mistake instead of a huge one.
She carefully knots the handkerchief back around the earring and shoves it deep into her dress pocket. She stands on the edge of the gazebo, scanning the huge yard, but she doesn’t see the magician anywhere. She wants to thank him, for all that she’s not sure how to say it, how to be grateful without acknowledging that what he’s shown her cannot be explained away by logic.
She hides in the gazebo until it’s time to go home.
She looks up at the night sky, at the twinkling stars, wishing that wishing really worked.
She tells her father she had a lovely time and the girls were nice.
She gives the earring to her sister.
Emily forgives her.
Anna tells herself that magic isn’t real.
She tells herself it doesn’t pay to believe in childish tricks. She tells herself to grow up.
She tries to forget the magician.
The night is perfect and glorious and sparkling, too beautiful to be real. Like magic.
Max is ten years old, and he has finally found his way to the party he’s always dreamed of seeing.
Overhead, crystal chandeliers sparkle, spilling their light onto a throng of dancers clad in grand ball gowns and swooping robes and sharp black tuxes. They wear masks in every shade of the rainbow, their eyes twinkling from the shadows as they turn and spin and dip to a dizzy waltz. Max has wanted to come here for a long, long time, and he finally found a way in. He is the only child here, and he hopes no one will notice.
He steps into the room, shiny black shoes clicking on the tile floor, and resists the urge to fiddle with his carefully tied bow tie. After thorough consideration, he visits the buffet first, sampling the cakes and pastries and cheeses and fruits, tucking little sandwiches into his jacket pockets and gorging on strawberries dipped in a chocolate fountain. He inspects the punch but knows full well that he can be whisked away just as easily as he was allowed in and must show respect for this place. He would like to ask someone to dance, but is quite simply too overwhelmed to find the words. Now that he knows there is dancing here, he’ll learn the dances, and when he comes back, he’ll know better.
Copyright © 2023 by Delilah S. Dawson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.