Mitch Scarlett had just enough time to dodge the crushing steps of the twelve-foot, fire juggling scarecrow before being swept into the sea of spectators who had come to see the Illusionist. Music spilled into the streets. A trombone player tugged his horn while the drummer beat his bass. Just as the fiddler began picking up speed, a sudden explosion split the air and the band was drowned out by a burst of crackles, pops, and hisses.
The sulfur smell of the fireworks faded to sweet salted caramel as Mitch passed the kettle corn stand on Carnival Street. She slowed her pace and took a deep breath. Two clowns on unicycles swept by. Mitch blinked green, then purple, then gold, as yards of brightly colored silk became tangled about her head. Spinning around to free herself, she nearly tripped face first over a bale of hay that had fallen from one of the horse-drawn wagons circling Central Square.
“Thought you might not make it, little Miss,” a voice whispered hoarsely in her ear as she stumbled to regain her balance. His voice was so low that for a second Mitch thought she had heard her own name instead of ‘Miss,’ but looking up into the face of the stranger who addressed her, she realized she must have been mistaken.
Staring back at her was a rather wizened-looking man with thinning grey hair and amber eyes as sunlit gold as her own. He was dressed finely in a black suit and silk top hat. Mitch could smell the stale tobacco on his breath when he drew near. There was something sinister in his countenance that made her recoil from the stranger’s touch, but before she could gather her senses to speak the man tipped his hat politely and turned swiftly on his heels, disappearing into the spectacle of street performers.
Unnerved by the strange encounter, Mitch pulled her sweater tighter around her lanky frame and hurried off in the opposite direction. Moments later, she arrived at the Town Center. Dozens of tiered wooden benches had been set up along the perimeter of the grass facing the bandstand. Mitch felt a surge of pride as she surveyed the size of the crowd that had already gathered.
“Ticket?” asked the attendant without looking up.
“Rene, it’s me!” Mitch replied. A wide smile broke out over the man’s freckled face as his eyes met the familiar girl standing before him.
“Well, if it ain’t the grandbaby of the great man himself! You ready for the magic, Mitch?”
Mitch laughed, thinking about how her granddaddy would have cringed over Rene’s use of the word ‘magic.’
“Illusions—not magic!” he would have insisted. “There’s a difference!”
To Graham Scarlett, that difference was important. He was a man of science. In his younger days, he had studied astrophysics and taught classes at the local college. Though he had retired several years ago, shortly after Mitch had come to live with him, he still took a scientific approach to his work. His tricks, as he would explain to Mitch, were based on sensory illusions that worked by redirecting his audience’s attention, or planting hypnotic suggestions in their minds.
Mitch listened politely every time her grandfather started talking about the science behind his show, but a part of her liked to believe he really was a magician. The people of Corridor County liked to believe it too.
“Your granddaddy sure can draw them crowds, can’t he?” Rene said, admiring the packed stands. “He got this whole house full, and there’s still a half hour ‘til show time!”
Mitch smiled at Rene’s enthusiasm.
“Sure is something,” she agreed, but as the granddaughter of the celebrated illusionist surveyed the vacant stage she began to feel uneasy.
Recently, Graham’s behavior had given Mitch cause for concern. He seemed unusually forgetful—misplacing his glasses over and over again throughout the day or leaving the kettle whistling on the stove for so long Mitch had to run in from the yard to take it off the range herself. In the house, she would find her grandfather staring out the window at the edge of the swamp bordering their property. With every passing day, his thoughts became more and more distracted until he began to have difficulty keeping up with even the simplest of conversations.
Mitch shuddered to think of the inevitable conclusions to be drawn. She couldn’t imagine life without her grandfather, who had been by her side as long as she could remember, raising her up after her parents had disappeared all those years ago.
“Well, you’d better get yourself inside!”
Rene’s bright voice snapped Mitch out of her troubled thoughts.
“Look like there’s ‘bout to be standing room only if you don’t get a move on!”
Mitch nodded and said goodbye to the kindly ticket attendant she had known nearly all her life, and made her way to the benches.
The gold and scarlet leaves blanketing the walkway lifted off the ground with a sudden gust of wind. Mitch smiled. This was her favorite time of year. The Corridor County Harvest Festival kicked off a season of celebrations; her twelfth birthday was next month and Halloween followed shortly after. But as much as there was to look forward to, the thrill of autumn was always offset by the dread of a new school year. She would be starting the seventh grade on Monday, and even though she enjoyed her studies and did well in all her classes, Mitch felt awkward around her classmates. She knew what they said about her behind her back.
Mitch the Witch.
Get too close and she’ll cast a spell on you!
Graham Scarlett’s talents may have turned him into the star attraction of the Corridor County Harvest Festival, but they had also turned his granddaughter into a social outcast.
Just then, Mitch felt a hand grip her shoulder. Spinning around, she found herself face to face with familiar amber eyes.
“Granddaddy!” Mitch cried. “You scared me half to death!”
Mitch’s grandfather smiled broadly and put a finger to his lips, eyes sparkling as he pulled Mitch under the pinewood stands out of sight from the gathering crowd.
“Baby girl!” Graham exclaimed, gathering his granddaughter into a tight bear hug. His black suit smelled like cypress and magnolia, and from the kisses against her cheek she could tell he had been chewing his favorite gum. Mitch felt the knot in her stomach that had been tightening since her earlier encounter with the foreboding stranger dissolve completely.
“I saw you come in from backstage. You know I couldn’t do my show without a good luck hug from my favorite grandbaby!”
“Your only grandbaby,” Mitch corrected.
Graham laughed from his belly, and Mitch smiled at how youthful he appeared. The distraction of the previous weeks seemed to have vanished, and the worry that had hung so heavily on his bushy grey brows was gone altogether. Maybe it had all just been the build up to show, Mitch thought hopefully as she embraced her grandfather.
“Oh, granddaddy, I’m so glad to see you!”
“Ain’t it great?” Graham smiled. “I think this is the biggest crowd yet!”
“I know—I don’t even think I’ll be able to get a seat,” Mitch responded looking up at the shuffling bodies still packing the stands above her.
“Mitch,” Graham knelt down suddenly beside his granddaughter and pulled her face close to his. “I want to tell you something before the show begins.”
He stopped short, looking around cautiously, and Mitch’s heart sank as she watched the worry creep back into her grandfather’s face.
“Eh…I been meaning to tell you…”
“What is it, granddaddy?” Mitch asked anxiously.
“I just, eh…I just…want you to be able to see the show! I mean…see it up close. Why don’t you come with me, huh? You can sit up there behind the stage—” Graham gestured toward the red velvet curtain dividing the bandstand. “—and stay close to me—I mean, close to the action. What do you say?”
Mitch raised an eyebrow. After all these years, she knew her grandfather didn’t allow anyone on stage with him during his shows.
“Sure, granddaddy,” she agreed slowly. “But is everything…alright?”
“Of course, baby girl! Now let’s go, eh? The show’s about to begin.”
Her grandfather smiled, but his eyes darted around anxiously, scanning the crowd.
“You stay close now, you hear?”
Thirty minutes later, Mitch was doing her best to go unnoticed as she peered around the heavy curtains. The Corridor County Illusionist had just finished hypnotizing a volunteer from the audience, a defiant-looking teenage boy, who, at Graham’s command, had danced the tango with an imaginary partner and strutted about the stage clucking like a chicken.
Once the applause and laughter died down, Graham took his place in the middle of the stage. He removed his hat, and pulled a large gold coin from the inside.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” he called out in a dramatic voice. “Thank you all for coming to the show. And now, to show my appreciation, I’m going to make you all a little bit richer…”
Graham held the coin up to the crowd and smiled mischievously. With a quick snap of his fingers, the piece disappeared. An astonished murmur passed through the audience.
Graham gestured to the pocket of his pant suit, signaling to the audience to reach into their own pockets. Gasps erupted across the crowd, as each hand closed around a miniature version of the gold coin Graham had held between his fingers only moments before. In one swift movement, the audience pulled the coins from their pockets and held them high in the air.
Mitch stared transfixed into a sea of glistening gold before the crowd exploded in thunderous applause.
But her grandfather wasn’t smiling. The eyes of the Illusionist were locked on the one member of the audience standing perfectly still. Following her grandfather’s gaze, Mitch’s own eyes caught sight of a black top hat in the back of the crowd. A chill ran down her spine as she met the stranger’s amber stare and realized it wasn’t her grandfather the man had been watching from his post. It was her.
New chapters of The Secret Corridor will be published every Friday to CorridorCounty.com. Listen at Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Buzzsprout.