The Magician’s Hotel
Dedicated to Nicko
It’s 1932. The Depression has hit, people are burning money to stay warm. A small Hungarian boy steps off an Italian cargo ship. He’s spent his entire life either surrounded by war, or on the run from it. Finally landing in a brave new world, he looks at the steam and towers, takes in the paved streets stained with motor oil and horse poo. Notices few police, no militia. It feels strange and wonderful, like the sky has no chains on it.
“What’s your name,” a man with a list asks, without looking at him.
“Barlint,” the boy says.
“Bart,” the man replies, ticking a box. Another refugee? The man doesn’t care.
“Barlint,” the boy insists.
The man hits him with a baton. Doesn’t ask where his parents are, or even if he has any. So many children were orphaned by the Great War. So many still find their way here.
“You rats!” the man says, beating the boy again.
Then notices his nose is bleeding. He doesn’t feel right, propping against the wooden gangplank rail.
“Barlint,” insists the boy.
Barlint follows others to the crowded migrant borough, full of overwhelming smells and sounds. He’s used to the poverty of village life, but here it’s three, four, even six stories high. And wonderful!
He feels safe here. If he fights hard enough he can achieve. For so long all he has done is survive.
Barlint calls a greeting in Hungarian, “Szia Szia!!“, until someone answers. A Hungarian lady, with her child and husband – a blacksmith by the look of his strong, scorched hands.
“I need a home,” Barlint says.
The man raises his hand to hit the boy, but stops, as if against his will.
His wife looks at him, puzzled, then the boy. Nervously, she offers a bunk at their home.
“It’s called the Baltimore Hotel,” she says. “Many refugees live here.”
“I am a migrant,” Barlint insists. He has pride.
Inside the hotel is warm, the mattress is stained, torn, but a mattress. So many had nothing, died on the journey here. He lays out his clothes, then sits in the window, watching the busy city below.
Barlint wants no favours, not here. This is a new start. He pays the Hungarian couple for food, but after a few days, his money’s gone. He goes to a street corner, puts his hat out, then performs.
His English is still raw, so he sticks to sleight of hand and noises – “Hup!”, “Hoya”, and “Sha-pow!” Flowers come from his sleeve, coins appear from behind people’s ears, small puffs of smoke fill the pavement… a rabbit appears!
No-one has time for him in such hardship. Many are resentful – because he is not from here, another mouth to feed, because they don’t understand magic, because he is young.
A warm looking lady takes the time to watch. Smiling, she pays him with an apple. He immediately pulls out his pocket knife, slicing it into the thinnest layers, so it might last longer… forever!
Barlint eats each slice slowly, in bliss and admiration, as if that is his act – the boy who eats thankfully.
“Pathetic…” a sour man spits, knocking into Barlint as he passes.
The boy glares.
A cat runs up the sour man’s leg, scratching at his face, before he swats it away, then looks back suspiciously at Barlint, who continues to eat his apple.
Barlint returns to the tenement block, happy he has food, angry nobody gave him coin. Five burly Irishmen push past, descending on an Italian man with a fruit and vegetable stall. Everybody likes Sergio. When his food’s too old for sale, he gives it to those in need.
Barlint realises a moment has arrived. He runs to support Sergio, who tries to shoo him away.
“This will not be for children,” the Italian says, pushing Barlint backwards.
“Where’s our protection money, greengrocer?” the Irishmen bark.
“Let me help!” Barlint insists in Hungarian, but after a short scuffle, is again pushed away.
“Give us some money, now, Italiano!” the lead thug demands.
“Wait, wait,” Sergio says to the Irishmen, opening his coin tin.
Both of them look into the empty tin.
“Is this a joke?” the Irishman says.
“But… there was money in it!” Sergio begs.
One of the Irishmen hits him. Everybody on the block is watching, but they have already been beaten down by life, and the gang are young and mean and strong. Nobody helps.
“Meow,” says Barlint.
He’s so young, yet looks mean.
“Meow?” the Irishmen laugh.
One cat leaps, then another. Soon, the gang are curling and screaming under a barrage of sharp little teeth and claws. These are the rat cats. Running wild, fierce and needed in these times.
The Irish leave, tails between their legs. Barlint stands between them and the fruit cart, as if that is threat enough.
These tricks were easy, but it’s the 1930s, there’s lots of superstition, and everybody saw what they think they saw.
“For you,” says the Italian, handing the boy an apron full of fruit and potatoes.
“Come to our room for dinner,” some Romanians call from their window, waving eggs.
“Did you see that?” he hears voices say.
“What exactly happened?”
A crowd surrounds Barlint. He is happy for the first time in a long time. He tucks some of the food into his pocket, where it rests on the Italian’s money he stole.
Things had been hard for Gasper Tickle. The country was finally coming out of a health crisis, but not before it cost his parents their jobs. His father, Boris Tickle, was the magician for a circus out West. His mother, Doris Tickle, was its fortune-teller. It was their lives. But thanks to a virus, the circus had to shut down. He and his family had spent most of the year searching for work, looking for a place to belong.
“Look at that Hotel!” Boris boasted, waving his hand.
“It’s a tenement,” Doris replied, bustled by the footpath crowd.
Gasper just listened to the beautiful music, smelt the food, watched old men from different countries waving their arms about as they talked and played cards. The building looked amazing to him. Like a home.
“Dad, is it my eyes…?” he asked, pointing to the name, badly faded, above the 6th floor windows.
“The Baltimore Hotel, what of it?” Boris replied.
“The what?” Gasper said. “That’s not what I see at all.”
He was sure, fora minute, the word he was looking at was “Safety.” Yet there it was: Baltimore.
“Ahh, a trick of the light,” a voice cheered.
Gasper turned to see a tall man, with deep-set eyes, wearing a suit, topped by lots of wiry grey hair.
“See!” Doris insisted. “Just like in my dream, as if we’d been invited…”
“And you are?” Boris asked the man.
“Sapo,” the man said.
“Sapo who?” Boris asked.
“Just Sapo. This is my hotel.”
Sapo walked the Tickle family through a long 2nd floor corridor, its worn carpets, dull lights and faded paint, talking as if he wanted everybody to hear.
“This place has been in my family for generations. I take pride in who lives here, and suffer fools badly. We are a haven, a home for the… like-minded, but, well, best to not break my rules.”
They passed a dark-skinned baby, with a bubble bottle blowing bubbles. Each one grew and grew, to impossible widths, huge, twice as big as the baby, floating down the tired corridor.
“Are the rumours true?” Doris asked, just like that.
“Honey, Shh!” Boris pulled on her sleeve.
“Don’t you shh me!” she grumbled. “Well, are they?”
They went up the degraded stairs to the 4th floor. Gasper looked at face after face, watching from their doorways; long and drawn, rosy and full of wonder, scrunched, ancient, young, scared, bold. All with bad make-up on, beards, moustaches, odd glasses. Something about them was odd, mysterious. Some barely looked like people at all. Only the kids seemed to run around as if they didn’t care.
“I have no idea what you mean,” Sapo grinned, and left them at their door.
“Hmph. I don’t like him,” Doris grumbled.
“I agree,” said Boris. “It’s so obvious, why not just say it? This is a magician’s hotel.”
It was weird. Gasper Tickle had never been more surrounded by people, yet had never been more lonely. Or more frightened. The whole place felt… wrong. He walked the wonky 4th floor corridor looking in any and every open door.
4F had a short man in it, practicing card tricks, pulling a snake from his hat, feeding and loving it, before making it disappear again. He seemed nice, as if he might perform at your birthday.
4K held a lady who looked like she was made of wire. Her room smelt awful. She was brewing something in a pot that made the air feel thick.
4N was double strange. It had photos, image after image, of the ocean on the walls. And models of sunken pirate ships on the shelves. A song ran through it, something beautiful, without words. A majestic voice that spiralled, that beckoned and called.
Gasper heard it every night, reaching up every waterspout, running every piece of plumbing, echoing out of every drain hole, somehow, putting him, his mother and father at ease.
Up close it was powerful. Up close it had need.
“Hello,” a voice said.
Gasper jumped out of his skin, landed on his bum, and looked up to see a cute girl, about his age, watching him from behind the doorway. Her hair was curly, her skin not right, rough. She had a wonderful smile.
“My name’s Lilly,” the girl spoke loudly, over the song. “Don’t mind my Mum, she’s having a bath right now.”
“I’m Gasper,” the boy replied.
“Are you a magician, or the child of a magician?” Lilly asked, as if there were only two options.
“Um… Child?” said Gasper. This was all a bit much.
“Me too!” Lilly smiled. “But most kids pick up a bit from their parents,” she added. “Do you want to walk with me?”
“I don’t get it?” Gasper said, as he and Lilly strolled the corridor. “Each room seems like another world.”
“I know, how cool is that?” Lilly grinned. She was the best. “Come meet some of the other kids.”
Lilly took Gasper to the vacant lot behind the hotel, where three children were gathered in a circle, chanting to each other. Suddenly, a plume of smoke rose through the air.
They all fell backwards, laughing.
Gasper rushed up to see a hole in the ground, closing fast. Something disappearing into it as it went. Or so he imagined. It happened too quick, he couldn’t be sure.
“Do it again!” a black kid laughed.
“Yes, again!” a small Asian girl insisted. “Woo! That was the best!” laughed the main boy.
“Gasper, this is Ali, Eun Ae – which means ‘grace’ or ‘with love’, and Liwanu,” Lilly grinned.
Gasper just stared. Ali had tentacles where his fingers should have been.
The boy saw him. “Oop,” he hid his hands under his coat. All three of them cowered and glared.
“Is he safe?” Eun Ae asked.
“Am I safe!?” Gasper protested.
“I think so,” Lilly smiled. “If you want, I’ll take him down to the tugboat wharves to be sure.”
Gasper was in love with the tugboat wharves! Everywhere he looked there was industry, modern pirate ships, full of hard, lonely men, cranes, rusty containers from all around the world, railway lines. Everything, everybody, looked as if they were overflowing with hard luck and amazing stories.
“Were that boy’s hands novelty gloves, or real?” Gasper asked.
“I told you, his name is Ali,” Lilly said, in her dreamy way, but didn’t answer the question.
“If they were gloves, they were major cool!” Gasper persisted.
Lily kept on looking dreamily into dreamy skies full of dreamy clouds.
“Don’t you trust me?” Gasper said.
“That’s a big thing to ask for straight up,” Lilly finally replied. “We’re in constant danger.”
“Who from?” Gasper asked.
“Everybody,” she said. “The locals. Nobody wants us.”
“We’re different, I guess.”
“So?” Gasper insisted.
“See, I knew you were okay,” Lilly smiled. “Are you sure you don’t have any tricks?”
Gasper used sleight of hand to light a match and breath fire. An old circus gimmick he had seen his father do all the time.
“That’s amazing!” Lilly cheered.
Gasper wanted to tell her he had practiced it so much he once burnt down a trailer. And, another time, covered his lips in blisters. Yet he knew magician’s never talk about their tricks.
“Was that my test?” Gasper asked.
“No, don’t be silly,” Lilly said. “I’m going for a swim! I’ll see you in a few hours.”
Gasper was only a kid, but magician’s kids knew magician business. All kids know their parent’s business, whether they admit it or not. The level of tricks varied, the level of power. But, above all else, a true magician needed patience. That was what made the impossible seem easy, indeed, magical.
Lilly stepped backwards and fell into the water, piercing its surface with barely a ripple, and was gone.
Gasper pulled out some coins to practice his bait and switch, and practice, and practice… and practice, more than happy to wait a few hours.
The blow to the back of Gasper’s head rattled him bad!
“Do I have your attention?” a voice demanded.
Attention? It felt like someone had banged on his skull as if it was a door.
He rolled as someone’s foot came down. Then another from the other direction.
“Get him!” a voice demanded.
“Yee-haw!” another laughed.
“Stomp that fly!”
Near as Gasper could figure, rolling around like that, there were three boys and, behind them, a girl with dyed bright orange hair. The biggest boy stomped his boot down time and again.
“Yeah!” he cheered. “Yeah!”
“Bobby! Bobby!” the others chanted.
Gasper got a good look at his face – full of delight, cruel.
Suddenly, a sound like a kettle whistle filled the air. When Gasper looked up, all the bullies were frozen, mid-glory. Shoes and boots raised, hair messed, arms in the air. Only their eyes still had motion, and were afraid.
A small boy walked between them, with black hair and a raised nose, like royalty. The King of Nowhere. He strolled up to Gasper, dusted him off, then said; “Walk with me.”
“What about Lilly?” Gasper said.
“She’s safe, visiting her boyfriend,” the boy replied. “Let’s return to the hotel. This is all so… obvious.”
“Boyfriend…?” Gasper slumped his shoulders.
The walk back was the strangest thing yet.
Gasper stayed a pace or two behind the boy with black hair as the people of their block parted for him. Others stopped and watched. The fishmonger offered the boy fish. All this, in a modern city.
The boy turned, speaking over his shoulder.
“I protect them,” he casually said.
Inside, around the boy, Gasper no longer had to see things through the corner of his eyes. Clown magicians juggled and made strings of colourful hankies appear and disappear. The man who looked like an ancient Egyptian mage, walked around every bit like an Ancient Egyptian mage. The Aztecan High Priest wore robes full of temple dust. White witches helped people however they could. Each magician had a family – a wife, a husband, kids, pets. It all just seemed more honest.
“He has my approval,” the boy said, without actually saying a word.
Everything was body language with him, presence.
A native American medicine man stood in a doorway, huge and frightening. Nanook stepped out from behind his legs.
“See you soon, Dad!” he grinned, then looked at the boy in charge. “I’ll take him from here.”
Gasper walked down the dark corridor with his Native American friend, passing doors that hummed as if vortexes to other times, and geeks practicing card tricks, and through huge bubbles drifting up from the second floor.
“What does your name mean?” he asked.
“Bear’s growl,” Liwanu told him.
Gasper looked back at the boy with black hair, who had various creepy adults surrounding him, as if disciples.
“What’s his name?” he asked.
“Barlint,” Liwanu replied. “He’s the Forever Boy.”
Sitting on the roof felt awkward to Gasper. There was no magic up there, or pretend magic, or whatever. Just air, and the occasional rising giant soap bubble.
“That baby,” he thought, “must have the lungs of a champion!”
“They want to destroy us,” Liwanu said. “But together we’re safe from them.”
“Who do?” Gasper asked.
“Them,” Liwanu insisted, pointing two blocks away.
From up there, if he squinted, Gasper could just make out a small group of kids on the wharf edge, throwing rocks at the water.
“Lilly…” he fretted.
“It’s okay,” Liwanu told him. “She’s too good a swimmer. Legend has it last time she came home in a summer storm, just fell with the rain.”
“Yeah. Someone found her up here, boink, like that. So, who’s to say? I mean, maybe? Most of that stuff is beyond me. My Mum and Dad do a bit of chanting, y’know? Mix a few herbs into your tea. Make people feel good. Be wise for them.”
“Even that’s amazing.”
“Hey, you’re from a circus!”
“Your Mum predicts the future!”
“More like she sorta guesses it, I think.”
“Still,” Liwanu said. “What if she can?”
“Lately, she’s been crying a lot.”
“Mine, too,” Liwanu mumbled. “I just want to go back to our town in the mountains.”
Gasper tried to watch the gang. The girl’s bright orange hair. It made her stand out, a pinprick of warmth in an ugly view. He couldn’t believe how grey the city seemed from up there. He was sure the hotel had something to do with it.
He had always imagined the suburbs as a dreamland of playgrounds and happy kids who used skateparks and went to the movies. A simple place. Yet watching the bullies, he wasn’t sure who the ghouls were?
“I think they’re on the move,” Liwanu said.
“I can’t tell, it’s too far,” Gasper mumbled.
“Here,” Liwanu grunted, reaching into his pouch.
Gasper was excited! What would the son of a medicine man pull out? A powder made of the eye of an eagle? Magnifying crystals? A flaming stick to open an inter-dimensional door?
Liwanu handed him his mobile phone, put it on photo, then zoomed in.
“Oh,” said Gasper.
He watched the gang running, led by the big one, Bobby, towards what looked like a real estate office. A bald man greeted them. They talked. The man shook his fists, barking into his phone as he went knocking on doors, gathering followers.
Then he pointed at the Baltimore, and they all started shouting.
“Oh,” Gasper said again.
“Yeah,” said Liwanu. “Oh, indeed.”
Liwanu led Gasper through the third floor corridor. An open apartment door let out… colours? The air was brilliant with them! Deep, warm, almost crystallised blues and oranges. It was just light, but felt soft, alive, as if the two of them were walking underwater as rich, delicate ice patterns were slowly forming all around.
“Is this real?” he asked.
Maybe this was just a trick, like the way his father sawed people in half? There were many ways to light up a corridor.
“Real? If you believe,” Liwanu told him.
“What if it is? Air full of colours and patterns?” Gasper thought, “Imagine what else would be going on? That’s just one door of 72 in the building!”
He pictured himself being lost in the hotel, exploring worlds, meeting families.
“Come on,” Liwanu steered Gasper out of the colours, through his apartment, to where there was a balcony.
Down at the entrance, Sapo, the hotel owner, was standing face-to-face with the real estate man and his wife.
“That’s Harry and Margret Hinder,” Liwanu said. “They hate us.”
“Go back to where you came from!” Harry growled to the residents.
“You and your magic!” agreed Margret.
“You froze our boy and his friends!”
“They were just minding their own business!”
“I’ll have none of it!” Sapo shouted back. “Most of us are from this country!”
“You’re not from my neighbourhood! Lowering property values, eating cats! Sacrificing babies!”
“How dare you!”
“How dare me!?”
“Both of you!”
Gasper noticed Eun Ae and Ali, standing around him and Liwanu.
“The kids of the Baltimore cluster in times of trouble,” Liwanu told him.
Gasper barely knew them, but took great comfort in that, as Margret Hinder kept shouting.
“You’re against our way of living!”
A few of her supporters cheered. Gasper was terrified. Some of them had weapons.
Then a small boy walked out from the hotel.
“Barlint…” Liwanu whispered.
Everybody stopped. The street was silent, other then the small pop of the occasional soap bubble.
“He’s going to do it this time!” said Eun Ae, eyes wide in anticipation. “Release the dragon…”
“Then they’ll really be after us!” Ali told her.
“Well, I’m stopping this,” Liwanu reached into his pouch.
“Here we go…” thought Gasper. “Big time…!”
But the Native American pulled out his phone again.
“Police…?” he said. “Come down to the Baltimore… Yes, again. Hurry!”
Everybody waited on Barlint. Was the threat of him real? Why wasn’t he releasing the dragon?
He glared at the real estate man and his wife. There was a rumble so low, nobody could tell if they heard or felt it.
Gasper was nervous, scared, excited. A dragon?
There was another rumble.
The police arrived.
More rumbling, louder!
Gasper looked up. A summer storm was rolling in from nowhere, black clouds falling over themselves, growing, tumbling, until they made the city seem tiny. Gasper had no idea how hot it had been until the rain broke, cooling down everything, and almost everybody.
“I don’t get it? Did Barlint make the storm happen?” he asked. “Does it have the dragon in it?”
The other kids ignored Gasper, as if he was asking small questions. Instead, they watched the police disbanding everybody.
“Next time, we’ll bring an army…” Harry Hinder called, over his shoulder, as the police herded him away. “Ruining the property values, I tell yas…!” he mumbled.
“And we will meet you with an army!” called Sapo, Barlint standing beside him.
The rain got heavy. Big, fat, glorious drops crashing down on the city.
Gasper stayed on the balcony, letting it drench him.
“Wow, that was something,” a voice said from the roof.
“Lilly!” he cheered.
Lilly sat with Gasper Tickle, drying off in his family’s lounge. Both of them surrounded by a zillion magic tricks, from fake handcuffs, to sleeves with dove pockets, politely watching his father practice.
Boris pulled flowers from an empty vase, pushing them into Lilly’s nose so she might smell them. Then, he waved his hands, and they were gone again. Next, he pulled a flat green balloon out of his pocket, blew it up, tied it off, and held it up comically, while using his other hand to offer Lilly a needle.
She tried not to roll her eyes. This trick was pretty cheesy to a girl who lived in a building full of magicians.
Lilly popped the balloon as directed, and flowers exploded from it! “What do you think? Boris asked, excited.
“There’s still a petal or two visible in your sleeve,” Gasper told him.
Eventually, Doris called from the kitchen; “I predict you’ll get a black eye if you don’t help me make dinner!”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah…” Boris grumbled, leaving Gasper and Lilly to discuss things.
“So, did Barlint make that storm?” he asked. “Did it have the dragon in it?”
“Or was it just a storm? Does he simply have good timing?” Lilly answered. “It’s up to you. That’s the beauty of magic.”
“Gah!” raged Gasper. “Magic does my head in!”
Lilly laughed. It was a beautiful laugh. They were friends, easy.
“Can I ask you something?” Gasper said.
“Be careful,” Lilly politely warned him. “It’s insulting to ask someone involved in magic to reveal their secrets.”
Gasper felt insulted. He hadn’t been raised in a magician’s hotel, but a circus was nothing to sneeze at. He knew some stuff! She just had to look around, they were sitting in a junkyard of $2 shop trickery!
But he asked what he shouldn’t, anyway.
“Is your boyfriend a sea creature?”
“No, he’s the son of a fisherman. Mum’s dead set against him!”
“Why? Are you a mermaid, Lilly?”
“No,” she said. “But Mum tells a great story of her Mum falling for a merman.”
There was that thing again. Faith. It was up to Lilly, and indeed Gasper, to decide if she was or wasn’t a descendent of mysterious sea creatures.
A month passed, the tension grew to impossible heights. It was too dangerous to go beyond the Baltimore block. Lilly and Liwanu were friendly, Ali was funny, Eun Ae was kind, yet Gasper couldn’t help but get more frustrated every day. He couldn’t breath! The suburbs, with their parks and basketball courts were so close, and yet so far away!
He sat in the Tickle lounge, watching Boris practice his steel rings routine, hoping for a job that never came. Doris had even resorted to working as a cleaner. How insulting! She was third generation fortune-teller! Destined for greatness! Or so her mother had told her.
“How was your day?” Boris asked, as she dragged herself through the door.
“Horrible,” Doris replied. “The bullies were out. That Bobby Hinder and his friends!”
“Maybe we should just stay on this block forever,” Boris told her, going back to his practice.
Gasper pushed aside a bowl of sea monkeys, several wands, a sea of disappearing flowers and a handful of top hats with fake bottoms, as he waded across the room to his mother. Doris’s shoulders were slumped, everything about her wilted. He hugged her as a tear rolled down her cheek.
“What’s wrong, Mum?” Gasper asked, as Boris practiced in the background. “Do you want Dad to get a real job?”
“There aren’t any. And if he did it would break my heart…” she smiled warmly, lips filling with salt water. “We are what we are… He, just… He should be able to take pride in being a magician. He’s good at it! I am. We’re needed. Every place needs more imagination…!”
Doris’s tears were really flowing now. She hugged her son, running her fingers through his hair, too ashamed to look him in the eye.
“I just… wanted something more. For you… For all of us.”
Gasper felt terrible. Right now, he had no desire to be a magician. Not even the son of one.
Everything was exciting. All Gasper had to do to dodge Bobby, or any of the local gangs, was dress like them. Shorts, a shirt. A fair pair of sports shoes, carry a skateboard. He moved quick through the hotel block, avoiding all eye contact, then, crossing the street, felt this wonderful release!
Suddenly, there were no more ghoulish men, or creepy women. No more frail people swallowing flames. There were no expectations of generations, or feelings of being an outsider, forever trapped on the one overcrowded block. No more not knowing what was just a trick and what was not. What was real and what was not. They were all tricks, he decided. All!
Instead, there were streets, barbeques… skateparks! There was motion.
Gasper saw some kids playing basketball.
”May I join?” he asked.
“Can you play?” the biggest boy asked.
Of course he couldn’t! He was a magician’s son! There were no basketball courts in a circus! He wanted to tell them he could toss knives blindfolded that would take the kid’s cap off, then thought better of it.
“No. But I’ll try,” he said.
One of the kids threw Gasper the ball. He caught it awkwardly, threw, and missed the lot.
“He’s on your team,” the kid told his friend.
“Don’t want him, we’ll play with one less.”
Gasper’s chest sunk.
“Hey, only joking, bro. A player’s a player!” smiled the first kid.
“Where you from, anyways?” asked the second.
“My Dad’s an electrician. We just moved in,” Gasper lied.
Gasper was paired against a girl with blue hair. She beat him, which made the others laugh, but he had a great time. Something about her looked familiar, though.
“You’re really hopeless,” she said, warmly, when they all took a break.
“I’ll get better,” he replied.
Gasper skated back towards the Baltimore with a big grin, gliding down the hill, arms out as if flying. There was no more hiding – in a hotel, up sleeves, behind fake fronts, under false bottoms. He was in with the locals. In!
Pictures filled his head of hanging out around backyard swimming pools, going to the movies, playing football on the street. Approaching his block, he suddenly became aware of how he looked, with his boring clothes. He grabbed a cloth off someone’s clothesline, turning it into a cape, just so no-one from the Baltimore would bother him.
Reaching the stairs, Gasper saw the dark skinned baby, sitting in its corridor, forever blowing giant soap bubbles for nobody. It was lovely. It made him feel sad.
“That cape looks sucky!” Lilly laughed, as Gasper walked out onto the roof. “And what are you wearing under it?”
Gasper’s cheeks turned red. He walked along the fat roof edge as if it were a tightrope, just to get his mind off things.
“And what if you fall?” Lilly smiled.
“I’ll turn my cape into a magic umbrella,” Gasper told her.
They both laughed. Gasper collapsed comically onto the roof, looking up at clotheslines full of polka-dotted socks, glitter-filled shirts and oversized underwear.
“You’re boyfriend’s not really a fisherman’s son, is he?” Gasper asked. “Tell me about him.”
“No,” Lilly said.
“Why?” Gasper asked.
“I don’t get it.”
“If you don’t believe, you’ll just say he’s a figment of my imagination.”
“What does figment mean?” Gasper scratched his head.
“That I made him up.”
That made him feel guilty for some reason.
“And if you don’t believe, I might not believe…” she said. “And he might not be real.”
The singing of Lilly’s mother rose through the air vents, covering both of them. It was beyond beautiful! Surrounded by it, Gasper felt the urge to swim through blue landscapes, exploring underwater kingdoms.
Then he heard the Egyptians arguing with the voodoo family from 2B. There were a few brief flashes of light, a monkey squealed, a small fight broke out. Somebody calling for someone to break them up.
“This building is a zoo,” Gasper joked.
“I saw you, from up here,” Lilly said. “Out there, in the suburbs.”
“Anyways, I’m going to hang out with Ali, Eun Ae and Liwanu,” Lilly told him, walking for the stairs. “We’re going to talk to lizards.”
Lilly walked past Sapo as she left, who had been standing by the doorway, watching, as he tried to fix an old movie projector.
“What are you doing, Mr Sapo?” she asked.
“None of your business,” the grumpy man hissed.
“Well, Mum says our plumbing is full of rust. Maybe you should be fixing that,” Lilly told him, and was gone, leaving Sapo staring at Gasper.
“Traitor,” he hissed.
Only then, Gasper realised Barlint was up there, too.
The boy seemed to always have a shadow around him. Something that warped time, made you feel like you were falling into it. He never showed any expression, which made him always look angry.
“Leave him alone, Sapo. He’ll learn,” Barlint said. “He’ll learn plenty.”
Gasper thought a lot about Lizards over the next few days. What if they could talk? How amazing would their stories be!? These things that descended from dinosaurs, now so small, living in the cracks of a land of giants! Every bird would be a dragon to them, every dog a Cerberus, every cat a griffin. Every human a thundering beast.
Would they have their own little communities, or keep it simple: Must eat; Sun warm; Must hide; Sleep now.
What would they dream?
Magicians were meant to have patience. If Lilly and the others could indeed talk to lizards, he bet they’d find it fascinating. A learning tool for bigger and better things.
But Gasper had other problems.
He was playing basketball, paired against the girl again. He had been practicing every day, with the same dedication he once gave magic, to the point both teams wanted him. The girl’s hair was now green. Which made him think it might have once been orange.
She was good, still better than him, yet it was a real contest now, that they both enjoyed. Gasper couldn’t help but be nervous, though. What if she was the girl from that day down at the wharves?
After the game, they all went to the skatepark, and, sure enough, there, greeting them like brothers and sisters, was Bobby Hinder. These were the kids that had almost started a riot.
“Who’s the newbee?” Billy grunted.
Phew, he didn’t recognise Gasper.
“Just a kid,” said one of the boys.
“Well get him to scram for a while,” Billy insisted. “Dad says we’ve got to talk about some stuff.”
Gasper lay awake, listening to the restlessness of dozens of magicians and their families. They all loved the night, it was hilarious! Every one of them seemed to think the moon was their friend, and only their friend. As if they could do each other favours.
He watched it out his window, small compared to the billboards, neon and street lights. Yet, surrounded by all these magicians he couldn’t tell if it was talking to him, staring, or just a small, dead rock, going in circles.
Lilly’s mother sung the most breathtaking, sad song. Under it, Gasper tried to imagine what creatures might live in the moon’s silver dust, but could only think about how fun it was playing basketball.
Gasper was in the outside world again, and hungry. He was always hungry out there. The other kids had no problem with it. Their houses were close. There was always food at the shops, they had odd jobs, pocket money.
He laid a cloth out on a street corner, pulled out a deck of cards, and started shuffling, hoping no-one he knew would see him. A man walked up, looking just like all the other men there – not good, not bad… maybe likeable, maybe not.
Gasper said; “Say; When.”
The man said; “When.”
Gasper stopped shuffling, held the deck in one hand, and bent it so the cards spat at the man, rapidly, until only the ace of spades was left.
Bang! No small talk, no mucking around. Cards everywhere. A trick.
The man gave him a dollar. He brought fruit.
Within a few days, Gasper was bringing a whole bag of tricks, that he never once admitted to himself was magic.
He set up on the street corner, starting with the three cups hiding one ball routine. It made him feel small. Gasper had seen things at the hotel not even a circus boy could explain. Shadows that talked, tricks of time. Cups tricks seemed awfully small.
At least he was making enough money to eat like a king.
“Hey,” a voice said.
It was the girl. She had purple hair now. Gasper didn’t even know her name.
“Hi,” he replied.
“So, you’re a magician?” she said.
Casper felt his heart sink. He just wanted to fit in, so bad! Before either of them could say anything more, Bobby called out from a block away.
“Hey, Cara! Bring your ‘boyfriend’! Dad says it’s on! We’re going to put a stop to those freaks!”
Cara smiled a crooked smile at Gasper.
“I’ve been watching,” she said, as she left. “I like that thing you do with the little guillotine, when you make it look like you cut off your thumb.”
“Oi! New kid! You coming?” called Bobby. “This time those weirdos have gone too far!”
Gasper looked past him and turned white. There were big plumes of smoke coming from the direction of the hotel.
Smoke filled the air as Gasper rounded the corner to the Baltimore block. His lungs hurt, his legs were wobbly. People were running everywhere! He had never skated so fast, or felt so guilty and scared in his life!
The locals were gathering into a mob at Harry and Margret Hinder’s real estate office. They’d be close behind. No time for corridors or stairs, Gasper scaled the fire escape, and scampered into the arms of his Mum.
Doris hugged her son as hard as a person could, tears everywhere, gasping with relief. Boris came from the bedroom, embracing them both, like a blanket.
Doris, sniffling, looked at her son.
“I was so worried!” she pleaded.
“We both were,” Boris said.
“Mum, why didn’t you use your fortune telling powers?” Gasper asked.
“For the fire?” she said.
“To be sure I was okay?” Gasper asked, then felt guilty all over again.
If he didn’t believe in magic – and magic was, indeed, based on belief – then maybe the fault was his.
“I just needed skin contact,” Doris sighed warmly, holding his hands.
She stared into the eyes of her son, as if searching for things, visions.
“Mum…?” Gasper said.
In the middle of all that smoke and chaos, her calm felt weird.
Then she smiled.
“Whatever else happens,” she cooed, “of you, I’m going to be proud.”
Boris looked through the smoke at Doris.
“She’s lost it,” he said. “Bonkers.”
Then, the screaming began.
Smoke filled the corridor. There was movement everywhere, shapes of families helping each other, while people yelled outside.
A smaller shape worked its way towards Gasper, then collapsed.
“Lilly!” he cried.
She coughed, clearing her throat.
“Some people…” she smiled, even now, “…do better… with smoke than others.”
Gasper lifted her up.
“Why aren’t the others helping you?” he pleaded.
“My mother…” Lilly said.
Further down the corridor, Eun Ae, Liwanu, Ali and the voodoo family were trying to lift a bath through the door, full of water, and Lilly’s mother.
“She has a medical condition…”
Gasper tilted Lilly’s chin up.
“No, she’s the daughter of a mermaid,” he said. “And you’re a granddaughter of a mermaid.”
Then, there were sounds from outside.
“See?” Henry Hinder’s voice shouted. “See? See! They’re burning the neighbourhood down!”
No soon had he said that, the sound of breaking glass filled the building. People were throwing bricks through the windows.
Eun Ae ran down the corridor with a bucket of water, throwing it all over Gasper and Lilly.
“Here,” she said, tying water balloon to his belt. “If she gets dizzy, break some of these on her.”
Rabbits, doves, snakes, the monkey, even kittens, were fleeing in all directions.
“Where’s Sapo?” someone shouted.
“Help us, Sapo!”
Gasper saw small colourful things hiding behind door frames, and cracks in the wallpaper.
“It’s okay, I believe in you!” he called, and somebody’s fairies flew out from hiding, to safety. “I believe in all of you!” Gasper shouted.
“Even me…?” said Barlint.
Barlint stood, as always, in plain sight, but as if in a corner, surrounded by shadows. Something big curled and slid through the dark behind him.
Or was it the smoke shifting?
“I don’t know that I want to believe in you,” Gasper told him.
“Why?” Barlint asked.
Gasper could almost feel the thunder in his voice, the power.
“Why do you hate them so much?” Gasper asked.
“Are you serious?” Barlint smiled. “With our lives burning down?”
The object behind him slithered more. Were there giant red eyes staring hard at Gasper, or was it just lights darkened by the smoke?
“Those people, out there, they were mean. They’re always mean!” Barlint snapped. “Why grow up to be them? Why not be mean back?”
“Maybe they have good points, too,” Gasper said.
“You’re one of them,” Barlint growled.
Lilly grabbed Gasper by the arm.
“Stop playing these power games!” she said, to both of them.
“Power? Me?” sputtered Gasper.
He looked around. The voodoo family, Lilly’s mother, the kids, had stopped at the top of the stairs. Everybody was watching… Even the baby with the bubble bottle.
Lilly whispered in his ear.
“Yes, you. If Barlint’s magic needs belief, then, right now, you hold all the cards.”
“Oh,” Gasper replied.
Fairies were one thing, but it was up to him to decide if dragons were real?
The smoke got thicker, the yelling and screaming from the street got worse.
“Liwanu and I will see what’s causing the fire!” Gasper called. “Eun Ae and you find Sapo!”
Lilly and Eun Ae ran off, into the smoke.
“You can’t keep avoiding making a decision,” Barlint’s voice called through the haze.
More windows were shattered, by bricks, by sticks, by bitterness.
“Get out! Get out you baby eaters! You unnatural! You witches!” shouted the Hinders.
“Out! Out!” other voices chanted.
“Did you hear that?” squawked one of the white witches. “What’s wrong with being a witch?”
“All my ingredients are perfectly natural!” insisted another.
“Ew! Who’d eat a baby?” agreed the last. “We’re lovely!”
Gasper and Liwanu ran through the colours of the third floor corridor. The smoke just added to them. They were so rich, so alive, so impossible. Patterns of orange light, of green, shaped like maps, shaped like roses, to be read, to be breathed in, pushed through. Each one was so peaceful, he could fall through them forever.
Dragons, though, were violent. Or so he thought. He’d never met one.
The sound of more violence snapped Gasper back to reality.
“That’s it!” Liwanu said, reaching into his magic pouch.
“At last,” thought Gasper.
He knew Native American medicine would be mighty!
Liwanu pulled out his mobile again.
“I’m calling the police, AND the fire department!” he said.
Standing on the voodoo family’s balcony, Gasper could see the hotel residents crushed outside its entrance, face-to-face with shouting, stick-waving locals. Beside them all, two big dumpsters full of old tires were on fire.
“I don’t get it? Burning rubber makes more smoke than anything,” Gasper scratched his head. “Why would someone from the hotel…?”
Then, a dragon rose through the smoke! Rose, and rose, until it was three stories tall, roaring with fury!
Everybody on both sides scampered backwards, except Harry Hinder. He was having none of it!
“It’s us or them!” he cried, pumping his fist in the air. “I’m not going anywhere!”
It was inspiring!
Them Sapo ran out, plumbing tools in hand.
“Outsiders, defend yourselves!” he screamed, a true leader.
Lilly and Eun Ae had no idea Sapo was already downstairs as they entered his unlocked door.
“Hello…?” Lilly’s nervous voice called. “Mr Sapo? We need you!”
“This is creepy,” Eun Ae said, looking at the photos of his family tree on the wall. Each one housed people who looked as bony and pale as him.
“They’re almost the same person,” Lilly agreed.
Male, female, young old, colour photos, going back to black and white photos, and back again to illustrations, each image had the Baltimore Hotel in the background. As if it had been in his family forever. As if the wall held the history of the building as much as the Sapo clan.
Lilly stared at the photo from 1890. The Baltimore still looked new, proud. Well-heeled families, with polished shoes and fancy vests milled around behind Sapo’s relative, holding frilly umbrellas. This place was once something grand.
Now it was all leaky faucets, rust and mouldy carpets. This Sapo was a hopeless manager. Only magicians kept the place alive.
“Lets go, he’s not here,” Lilly said, and turned to leave.
“Holly Molly…! What’s this…?” Eun Ae gasped.
“I said I believe in you, now make it go away!” Gasper shouted at Barlint.
“It’s. Not. Me!” Barlint growled back.
Gasper ran outside. People were fighting, the dragon rose through the smoke, it was horrible.
“Stop!” Gasper yelled. “Stop!”
But everybody was screaming. Nobody heard.
Then, there was the roar of a mighty bear! The crashing and bashing sound of it working its way through small corridors, towards the crowd outside.
“Nanook!” Gasper whispered.
For a moment he was happy. Then, he realised if his friend came out those doors as a giant bear, the locals would believe in magic even more. And in that moment Barlint would be unstoppable!
Gasper ran back inside, arms out.
But saw the Native American boy holding his phone, with a YouTube video of a growling bear, linked to the voodoo man’s stereo.
“How good, eh!? Are they falling for it?” Liwanu laughed like a drain.
Gasper grabbed his phone off him, but it was too late. Fear had set in, which lead to anger. The mob was attacking the whole block, carts, food stands, anyone and everyone who was different.
Gasper was desperate. He bolted like never before to his apartment.
“Dad, I need something!”
“From me?” Boris stuttered. “Wow.”
Gasper’s plan wasn’t even a plan – more, a need to show something, for his Mum, to lead the way. Leaping down the stairs, he ran the third floor, nervous, inhaling deep, knowing he had one last chance before violence would see the whole block go up in flames!
“C’m’on, c’m’on, c’m’on…!” he thought.
As he ran, he saw something big, and strong, full of scales, sliding, with great weight, through room after room, taking people with it to the safety of vacant lot out back. Barlint’s dragon was real! The fear hand worked on the crowd, and, with Gasper distracted, that was enough!
Maybe that was why the boy never left, why he used dreams to recruit magicians to live there? Doubters from the outside world took his power.
Lastly, Gasper grabbed the bubble bottle off the Voodoo baby as he made for the front door.
The only thing he couldn’t figure was, if Barlint’s dragon was helping magicians and their families get away, what was that thing terrorising people outside?
“Burn it all down!” bellowed Harry Hinder.
“Show them how we fight!” thundered Sapo.
Behind them, in the billowing smoke, thrashed and roared the fiercest dragon ever seen.
Then it flickered.
Then it was gone.
Everybody looked behind the dumpster fire to two little girls, who had stopped an old movie projector playing dragon movies into the smoke.
“Someone wanted you to think it was real,” Lilly shouted.
“That’s why they lit the fire,” Eun Ae called. “In smoke the image is frightening. It would have looked flat against a wall.”
“But why?” somebody asked.
Then, Eun Ae put the papers she had found on Sapo’s desk against the light, projecting them onto the smoke.
Property bids. Apartment and shopping mall blueprints. All for the buildings on the Baltimore block. Super cheap bids, because nobody wanted to buy warehouses surrounded by conflict and chaos.
And there, at the bottom of each page, were the signatures of Harry Hinder and Sapo. The new co-owners.
“I… I just thought…” pleaded Sapo. “If… If we could build a new shopping complex, apartment blocks, the Baltimore could be great again…”
The fighting stopped, the pushing and shoving eased. In that moment, Gasper arrived outside, unable to hold his breath any longer.
He stood on the stairs, dipped the bubble spoon into the soap bottle, and blew out air from the third floor corridor.
The first bubble was the richest purple the world had ever seen! The colour of plumbs and sunsets and mystery. It grew and grew until it was huge, drifting up, into the air.
The next bubble was the deepest, deepest green. The colour of peace, and rainforests and lime ice-cream and dreams.
Then, there were ten small orange ones, the colour of eating fruit in the sun, the colour of fun! Everyone watching as the bubbles drifted up, up… until each of them POPPED! And flowers of the same colours fell to the ground.
No-one knew what to do, what to say. Not even Gasper. He had borrowed some magic from a baby, added a trick of his father’s, a trick of his own. All of it could be explained logically, yet, if you put them all together, it was magic of the finest kind.
He looked up to the forth floor balcony and saw his Dad, glowing with pride.
Both sides knew they’d been used, but were still wound up, still full of anger. Anything could have happened.
“It’s fake! Don’t listen to them!” Harry Hinder screamed.
The final bubble popped.
Then, Cara, the girl with the Orange hair, then blue, then purple, said; “That was awesome! Do you want to perform next week at my birthday?”
Gasper turned to Lilly, who shooed him on.
“Sure,” Gasper gulped.
The local butcher stepped out from the crowd.
“Who has that beautiful voice I sometimes hear at night?” he asked. “We could use a singer for my Nan’s birthday.”
“Don’t judge us…” called a lady from the suburbs, who had been passing with her boy, from a block away. “For every one trouble maker, there are hundreds of fine people you’ve never seen at all!”
The Voodoo man hesitated, then said; “No judgements here, Ma’am. Would you and your family like to visit our home?”
The lady hesitated.
“Oh boy!” her son said. “Dinner and voodoo! What an adventure!”
Doris stood in the hotel entrance with everyone, smiling as the crowd chased Harry and Margret Hinder down the road.
“I’m telling you! They framed us! We didn’t sign any contracts!” Harry squealed the whole way.
She held her husband’s hand and saw him working in a factory while teaching magic at night, sharing the love of his craft with the next generation.
She saw her son walk down to the wharves with his friends, old and new, green hair and blue, to meet Lilly’s boyfriend.
Doris lay her hand on the Baltimore doorway, and had a vision of the suburbs with magic in them, giving their residents that bit of colour, that bit of wonder, everybody needs to dream great dreams.
She pressed harder, and saw the hotel families relaxing, embracing their brave new world. Letting it enter their doors.
“This is a wonderful moment to be alive,” Boris told her.
“So is tomorrow,” she told him.