by Michael Colangelo
Connor Mason is disappointed with the way that the makeup kit has turned out. He stares into his mother’s boudoir mirror and compares his face to that of the monster’s face on the discarded box. He looks nothing like the picture advertised. In fact, he still looks like himself, just with ugly blotches of green and brown patterned on his skin.
The kit was a rip-off. He has ordered things from the back pages of comic books before and they have all been failures. If they even show up at all, that is. They are usually nothing like the advertisements claim.
The x-ray vision glasses, and the trick handcuffs, and the fart candy have all let him down – time and time again.
Despite his malign feelings towards the products, he already has his eye on a new one. The “Saw-a-Lady-in-Half” box is expensive at sixty dollars. Maybe that’s the trick, though. Maybe he’s getting shit because he’s paying for shit. That must be the reason behind his consistent failings.
It has taken seven weeks to save up enough allowance, but now he can finally afford the magician’s box. He carefully cuts the back page from his issue of BLACK ANDERSSON’S VAMPIRE MYSTERIES and checks off all of the appropriate boxes. Then he puts the marked-up ad in an envelope with his cash and carefully prints out the New Jersey address, applying a stamp to its front.
He doesn’t bother washing the mold off his face before walking a block to drop his envelope in the mail. On his walk back, he tries to solve the issue of finding a lady to practice on. Once the box arrives in six to eight weeks, he’ll need to try it out.
By the time he gets back to the house, he has decided that Mom or Judy might work out.
It’s almost five months later when the box arrives. He tears off the packaging and lugs it from its shipping crate. He sets it up in the television room while Judy watches from the couch. Mom’s not home so his sister will have to do, he supposes. It won’t be hard convincing her to lie down in the box.
The box itself looks nothing like what was advertised, of course. Instead of a gaily painted yellow and red container that has been finished with intricate designs of astrological signs and symbols, he has been sold a very plain-looking wooden box that tilts violently on ineffectual legs whenever he leans on it.
Still, the box has been delivered with pamphlet instructions. He quickly glances through them and memorizes the diagrams. Judy is to lie in the box and he is to saw her in half. Release mechanisms enable him to separate the box into two pieces to show the audience, then he can put the box back together and let Judy out.
“Do you like magic, Judy?”
He doesn’t need to ask twice. Moments later, she’s lying in the box, anxiously awaiting his magic trick. He looks over the diagram again and realizes that VAMPIRE MYSTERIES has failed him again. There is no saw in the packing crate. He can’t do any magic without a saw.
He finds one at the back of the garden shed outside. It’s a big and rusting two-man log saw that he can barely walk with, but it will have to do.
Back inside, he manages to get the blade up and slotted into the box’s groove. The steel-tarnished teeth bite against Judy’s skin. Their points draw blood and she emits a little shriek of pain.
His understanding of the trick is that it’s supposed to be illusionary. You aren’t actually supposed to cut a lady in half.
Disgruntled, he releases a long and tired sigh before telling Judy to shut up and quit squirming.
Just like the makeup he never washed from his face, he is determined to see this one through to the end – scam or otherwise.
Ella Mason doesn’t finish work until well after five o’ clock that day. She doesn’t get through the crowded rush hour traffic of the city’s core until well after seven o’ clock.
She arrives at the house to find all of the lights, and the television set, turned off. It’s odd, because Connor and Judy aren’t known for their fiscal prudence regarding household electrical bills.
There’s a box sitting on some sort of tripod stand set-up in the middle of the living room. Her grandfather’s old log saw lays nearby on the carpet. Her children are nowhere to be found and the house is dark and quiet. It’s either a prank or something has gone horribly wrong.
A prank, she decides. It must be a prank because if it’s not, she isn’t sure that her overworked and overtired imagination can handle the strain of something bad – not right now, it can’t.
Unsure of what to do, she carries on with her nightly ritual. She goes to the kitchen and snaps on the light and begins to make dinner. Tonight will be leftover Hamburger Helper, heated by microwave in its original storage container.
Once it’s rotating inside the machine, she sits at the kitchen table to shuffle through the mail, mostly bills. She glances up only briefly to find Judy watching her from the kitchen entryway.
“Judy – there you are. Did you get hungry? Where is your brother, then?”
“Connor sawed me in half and then Grandpa put me back together again. They’re talking about it upstairs.”
It’s her children playing games, just like she thought.
“Tell Connor and Granddad that dinner is almost ready.” She tells Judy, and then she returns to her mail.
Ella shrugs. If he wants to be like that, it’s fine with her.
Later still, just before bed, she goes to check on her son. While it isn’t unusual for him to be absent much of the time, it is unusual not to see him whatsoever on a given evening, especially where food is involved.
She peeks in on his bedroom and is relieved to find him in bed, asleep. She turns to leave but catches a steady whisper of words that he’s issuing under his breath. Curious, she returns to his bedside and crouches close to his face. She’s intent on catching whatever it is that he is dreaming – although, this is definitely a mistake.
He speaks so softly and gently with his child’s voice, and of such terrible deeds, that she initially believes that her ears deceive her. He talks of saws and rope and confinement boxes, and he talks about other things as well. He discusses railroad tracks and a man with the rotting head of a scavenger bird. When he mentions Ella’s grandfather by first name, his stream-of-consciousness scares her so badly that she clamps a hand over his mouth and startles him awake.
He’s groggy and confused. She pulls her hand away and feels a slight twinge of guilt for covering his face. Parents aren’t supposed to do that to their sleeping children. It conjures images of newspaper stories about mothers who murder their sons and daughters. Smothering the kids while they sleep is as old and traditional as birthday parties and Christmas morning, but it’s frowned upon.
He’s back to sleep in moments, and she’s relieved to see that he has fallen silent too. She slips out of the bedroom without giving him a kiss goodnight.
Her sleep is plagued by dreams. Bad ones that mash up her children and her grandfather John and the night of the car accident that took Ray from her. Consistent throughout all of the blood-drenched imagery however, is the sound of a wood saw somewhere behind and beyond the visual backdrop of horrors that parade through her sleep.
In the morning, she still feels tired, as if she never slept. She drives the children to school and then gets to work late.
Now that Judy has been cut in half, she just doesn’t care anymore. She has cut classes early with friends – Mary and Beth – and they’ve gone into the ravine to smoke stolen cigarettes and talk about boys beneath the train overpass.
Judy’s bored, so she goes rooting about in the forest underbrush until she returns with an old coil of rusting baling wire. Mary and Beth stare at her in anticipation.
“Do you like old movies?” She asks the girls and is pleased when both of them nod eagerly.
“So does my brother, Connor.” She hands each of them a good length of wire.
There’s a classic scene in most of the old films, she explains. The villain kidnaps a girl and then ties them to a train track and the hero has to rescue the girl. She suggests that it might be fun to pretend since the tracks are just above them.
Both girls are hesitant. After all, it sounds dangerous and unsafe. When Judy tells them that the hero always rescues them and then marries them, they are much more agreeable to the idea.
They hike up the ravine side and make their way onto the train tracks. Judy makes sure that both girls are tied down, wrapped tightly so that their wrists and ankles are immobilized. Then she stands nearby and waits.
There’s a train whistle in the distance, and the sound sends Mary and Beth complaining and squirming to escape. Judy tells them no. After all, she tied them up. She’s the villain in this scenario.
Later on, after school, she watches the local television news broadcast with Connor. The man explains how they found the bodies of two girls on the tracks and that the railroad company has no comment.
Connor turns to her and shrugs: “I can do that, but I can also put them back together.”
“Do it. I dare you,” is his sister’s only reply.
Ella does not make it home until extremely late at night. She has had an impromptu date with Sidney Raleigh, a junior partner at the law firm where she works.
Of course, she’s heard stories about Sidney but thinks nothing of them. Maybe even a small part of her thinks that she’ll be different than any of the other ladies that he’s courted around the office.
So she called the children to instruct them on how to make dinner for themselves, and then called the neighbors to have somebody check up on them. Then she piled into Sidney’s sports car and off they went. First they went to a fancy restaurant, then to a fancy nightclub, then to Sidney’s fancy apartment downtown.
He dropped her off at her car again sometime after midnight. The experience has only widened the hollow places inside of her, and she shrugs all of it off. She’s so broken that she’s become impervious to any more harm. That’s how it feels, at least.
She gets her key into the door and makes it inside. She’s relived to see that the kids have left the television on. It’s playing on mute, and the show is in black and white. At first she thinks that it’s one of Connor’s old movies. He has an extensive collection, after all, and he’s prone to watching them whenever he has the chance.
She soon realizes that what plays on the TV set can hardly be real at all. There’s a plainly decorated set with a black background. Stenciled across the curtain in white lettering are the words: THE LEVITATION HOUR.
Connor and Judy are there. They’re sitting in a pair of sparse chairs. Two girls around Judy’s age are also seated – but she doesn’t recognize them. All three girls are smoking cigarettes and emoting like they’re on some sort of talk show. Their interviewer is a tall and gaunt man dressed in an old-fashioned Quaker outfit. Resting on Grandfather John’s knee is the old log saw from the shed. Ella recognizes it immediately.
She snaps off the TV. Maybe Sidney put something into her drink. It wouldn’t surprise her.
But when she turns away towards the bedroom hallway, John is standing there in the dark with his saw.
“Hey, Ella – once you’re cut in half it’ll make more sense,” he tells her. He raises the saw and moves towards her.
But as John reaches for her, she picks up one of its heavy halves of the magician’s box and throws it at him. The piece hits him and both it and her grandfather go tumbling to the floor. The cheap plywood object shatters into fragments and she puts a high heel through the remaining piece for good measure. John turns to wood too. He fragments into nothing and showers the room in fine sawdust on his departure.
In the quiet that follows, Judy wanders from the dark in her pajamas. She looks tired, but not disoriented.
“Oh, Mommy,” she says softly. “What did you do?”
Behind her, lurking in the dark of the hallway, Ella can barely make out Connor’s form. She thinks that she can hear him laughing too.
In the morning, Ella calls off sick from work, takes the children to school, and then returns home to clean up the mess that she made. There is going to be gossip in the office about her night with Sidney and her conspicuous absence the following day, but she isn’t sure she should be worrying about the social ladder right now, anyway.
She gets most of the wooden debris out of the house and then goes into Connor’s room to look through his magazines and comic books. That’s where he gets the advertisements from. That’s how he ordered the box in the first place.
But it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. He has cut most of the ads out and the books are like broken jigsaw puzzles with all of the middle pieces missing. She’s about to quit, go eat a pair of Tylenol 3 pills and wash them down with a series of vodka shots, but something catches her eye.
There’s a full splash advertisement for magician tools and most of the listed items have been cut from the page. It’s not the objects that interest her, but the name of the company: LEVITATION TOWN. What she saw on TV the other night, right before John showed up, had the word levitation in it too. It’s too much of a coincidence to ignore.
There is no phone number, but there is a PO Box number. She has an old boyfriend out that way that could probably locate more information about Levitation Town if she begged him.
She only hesitates for a moment before picking up the telephone and giving him a call. All she can do now is wait for some sort of answer.
She gets the answer that she thought she would in less than a few hours. There is no Levitation City company. Even the PO Box doesn’t exist.
She hangs up the phone with a quiet thank you and then digs out the comic book again. BLACK ANDERSSON’S VAMPIRE MYSTERIES claims to be published right in town, or, rather, just outside of town and closer to Farmville.
The children will be home from school at any minute, and she is a little bit relieved that she won’t need to spend any time with them tonight. She leaves a note on the kitchen counter instructing them where dinner is. Then she gets into the car with the comic book and heads into the country toward the address listed in the front matter.
Connor and his only friend, Stephen, are standing on that train track overpass that runs over an abandoned culvert again. It’s far enough away from town so that they can experiment with drugs and one another.
Here, they’re hidden away from the unwanted observations of parents or teachers or neighbors who would be horrified to know what might go on between the two of them.
The culvert is deep and wide. Right now, in the evening at sunset, they can’t even see the bottom of it. They throw things down there – anything that they can get their hands on. They throw old junk that they pick up from the surrounding fields and groceries from the refrigerator at home. Stephen lives with his Dad – who’s never around, and Connor’s foster parents are mostly scared of him so it’s okay.
They’re not throwing things right now. Stephen is watching Connor hang off the bridge rail. A cigarette dangles from his mouth and he’s wearing that fucking jacket again. It’s a black leather coat with buckles on it. The back is studded with a series of multicolored sequins in the shape of a falcon or an eagle or a phoenix or something.
Stephen doesn’t know what kind of bird, exactly, but he does know that the jacket is the kind that only middle-aged black ladies can get away with wearing – middle-aged black ladies and Connor, at least.
Connor has his head lowered, and he’s staring into the dark abyss beneath them both. He’s whispering stuff to himself again.
“…and he saws them in half like a stage magician… cuts them right down the middle… starts at their cooters… ties them down with anything he can get his hands on… old rope, baling twine… a pink skipping rope… uses a log saw to split them open like bad wood…”
Stephen has no idea what he’s on about. He can’t tell if Connor’s just fucking with him or not. He peers over the lip of the overpass, hoping to see whatever it is that Connor can see.
All he sees is blackness.
“… can’t catch him because he’s not really there… looking for a transient… some rail-riding hobo… makes sense, but they’re not even close… you can’t catch what you can’t catch… scavenger birds will gather…”
And then it’s over. Connor snaps back to being Connor. He pulls himself back up onto the bridge and grins at Stephen.
“Forget it – let’s get back before dark.”
Stephen hangs out at Connor’s house until well after dark. He doesn’t want to go over there. Despite his affinity for his friend, Connor’s lives in the basement and it’s more depressing than not.
Connor’s younger sister hangs around too – and she’s not right, either. They sit in the unfinished basement and smoke dope and watch an old black-and-white television next to the furnace. It’s cold down here and it’s filled with spiders.
The TV only gets two channels with a pair of ancient rabbit ears. One of those channels only shows the news. The other channel is some sort of local public access station. It usually has a guy in a tweed hat and a cat sweater showing them how to woodwork all night long.
Tonight though, there’s a magician on TV. He’s some guy in a black turtleneck with a silver pentagram pendant around his neck and big mutton chop sideburns that frame his overbite. He’s standing against a black and formless backdrop that has the words THE LEVITATION HOUR pasted across it in white stencil lettering. And – no shit – he’s pulling a rabbit out of a top hat. There is no audio feed.
“I know that guy,” Connor laughs. His voice is strained and quiet. His leather jacket crinkles as he leans forward to get a better look at the grainy picture.
“No you don’t,” Judy tells him.
“Yeah, that’s Johnny’s older brother. Dude got drunk and passed out on the tracks last summer with his headphones on. He got splattered by the train. You remember? Stephen? They had a big wake at school for him. He was supposed to go to college for chemical engineering or something.”
Connor is practically kissing the television screen. He’s muttering too, under his breath so quietly that Stephen and Judy can’t hear what he’s saying. What is important is that he’s talking to the magician on the screen about something critical. And by the way that he nods his head in affirmation every once and a while, the man on TV is talking back to him.
They watch Connor talk to the ghost of Johnny’s older brother, and watch him perform magic tricks until the screen goes dark, suddenly and abruptly. It’s almost midnight and Stephen needs to go home. Connor shuts off the television.
Judy makes kissy faces at him and suggests that she might walk him home. Stephen politely declines her offer and is mostly glad when he finally gets out the door.
In the morning, Stephen feels terrible. His migraine pounds and so he doesn’t go to school. He skips out and checks all the places where Connor might be hanging out. He can’t find him anywhere.
So he takes a walk across the tracks and heads towards his house. It’s a little bungalow near the car plant. You can tell the neighborhood used to be nice, but it’s not nice anymore. The lawn needs a mow and there are metal and mechanical parts spilling out of the broken garage door all over the driveway.
Connor’s foster dad fixes stuff – kitchen appliances and cars, mostly – but you wouldn’t be able to tell that based on the upkeep at the front of the house. Everything here was broken a long time ago.
As he moves through the piles of rusting stuff, that’s when Stephen first sees them.
There are birds everywhere on the lawn – an incredible amount of them. There are big black crows and slender brown birds with long beaks. Something huge and swooping sits perched on the telephone wires that pass in front of Connor’s house. It’s so heavy it makes the entire line sag.
He can vaguely remember Connor’s comments from back on the overpass. He said something about scavenger birds.
He backs away from the house and heads down the road. There’s no point in looking here anymore. He knows exactly where Connor will be today.
The birds do not follow him.
Connor is hanging from the overpass again, as he often likes to do. Stephen finds him in this state, except that Connor isn’t looking down and speaking nonsense. He’s looking up, like he was waiting for Stephen to appear from thin air.
His face has broken out shiny with sweat. His arms tremble as he struggles to maintain his slipping grasp on the unforgiving corners of the concrete edge.
“Took you forever,” he tells Stephen. “I wasn’t sure I could wait.”
Stephen shrugs: “I had some shit to take care of.”
“Haha – people to see, right?”
Stephen shrugs again.
“Don’t bother. It’s all an illusion, Stephen. You know what Johnny’s older bro told me last night?”
“I don’t want to know.”
Connor’s trembling arms reach the crescendo of their effort. Stephen can see that he’s pulling hard to get himself back up on the bridge, or at least maintain his hold. By the looks of things though, he has been hanging on for too long. He doesn’t have enough strength to do either.
“Okay,” Connor gasps. “But I can’t stick around here any longer. I learned part of the secret a long time ago – and Johnny just filled me in on the rest of it. Don’t forget how close you were to learning the secret too. I’m out of here, sucker, it’s time to levitate.”
Those are the last words that Stephen will ever hear from Connor.
He lets go of the edge and drops into the darkness, but the bird on his back doesn’t fly away like he might have planned. He doesn’t levitate at all. In fact, Connor drops straight into the abyss.
A few months later, one week after school gets out, they find Judy’s body in the long grasses behind the bowling alley. She’s almost been sawed right in two, from crotch to neck. There are no suspects, but the parking lot security cameras do have barely discernable footage of a madman with a log saw in his hands and a rotting bird’s mask over his face.
Stephen becomes affixed to his television set after Judy’s death. He desperately waits to see if Johnny’s older brother will come back to tell him whatever it was he told Connor. Maybe Connor just got it wrong, in the end.
But nothing ever comes of it. The magician is off the air forever, and so is Connor.
Nothing else happens.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Colangelo is a writer from Toronto. You may visit him at http://michaelrcolangelo.wordpress.com.