Behold: William’s father slices his mother in half. He shackles her to the bottom of a water tank. He packs her inside a cannon and lights the fuse. Midair, she dissolves into a flurry of cherry-blossom petals that fall, confetti-style, onto the gawking audience. Look how they reach toward her, now vanished! How they insist it can’t be real, even as they pinch the petals out of the air. They turn back to the Impossible Man, who pats the cannon and strides across the stage toward a glowing cabinet emblazoned with two entwined dragons. As he twirls the cabinet, the music swells—here come the gongs!—and then cuts off. He opens the door to reveal, snuggled safely inside, his wife and longtime assistant, the radiant and delicate Mei-Li.
Backstage, William can hear the applause. He shuts his laptop and for a moment imagines the curtain drawn open, the spotlight trained on himself: the boy who’s spent his first thirteen years between costume racks on cruise ships and convention halls, rarely lifting his head. Hot air purrs through his laptop’s vents. Above him, fine wires fan outward from a computer-controlled rig, and stagehands maneuver reflectors in precise directions. No one is looking at William, but he feels as if he’s been caught.
Instead of watching his parents, he’s been secretly reading about them—in the Magic Café forums, in popular magician blogs, on Reddit. The first posts started nearly a year ago now, in the early weeks of the Impossible Man’s Vegas debut, calling his father a blowhard and a hack. Now some say he’s depraved, sick. In the comments, MadameVaudeville3000 wrote, white men + “magic” = GROAN, to which Penis&Teller responded, heres a cool trick: suk a cock and r-e-l-a-x!! Every few days, a troll will offer some variation of how people who argue about magic all day have too much time on their hands; another chimes in, more succinctly, NERDS! Posted just that morning, a contentious comment from Reverend_Frederick_Astley—the Asian woman = stunning—is now split fifty-fifty on upvotes vs. downvotes.
As the applause dies down, William picks up his laptop and heads to his mother’s dressing room. He sits in her elevated chair in front of the mirror. Mystery novels she’s bought at airports line the counter next to makeup sets and brushes. Drawers teem with unopened mail, contracts, diagrams of tricks that he’s stopped trying to decode. His mother prefers to store her things in dressing rooms instead of hotel rooms, even though this time they were given an entire suite at the Wynn. In the mirror, he presses down on his freshest acne, then focuses on the radiant and delicate features he inherited from his mother: the thin, princely nose; the skin as pale as a camera flash.
Behind him, Mei-Li slips into the room. She presses her sweaty cheek against his and plops down on the chair beside him. She looks in the mirror too. To William, it’s as if she’s inspecting a scratch on the glass, rather than herself. Her hands rattle as they unhitch her crown of pearls and metallic flames and free the intricate pins from her hair.
There isn’t any space left on the counter, so she sets her pins, one at a time, on his closed laptop. She struggles to get a grip on the last few, but with a few tries her hands finally stop shaking, and she drops them with the others. Lustrous black hair pours over her ears and onto her shoulders, and she sweeps the pins up in one lithe motion. “Finish your paper?” she asks.
In one of the books she’s assigned William to read, the writer is putting Christopher Columbus on trial. Crashing onto the shores of the Caribbean thinking he’d found Asia, Columbus unleashed disease and murder on the Taíno peoples, returning to the islands three more times and believing, until his death, that he was in Asia. William’s mother eyes his laptop. He tries to remember which tabs he left up, the blogs or the free argumentative essay about the book that he’d found online.
“I don’t know what to write,” he says.
“Let’s see. What’s your position?”
“I don’t know. It’s easier to say I’m against.”
His mother wipes her sweat off William’s cheek. “Papers can be like that,” she says, and that’s when William knows she hasn’t read the book.
“Do me a favor, Will? Ask your father how much longer?”
Outside the dressing room, William sees his father just beyond a tangle of staffers: his sculpted shoulders and roguish grin, the handlebar moustache William could never grow. This man who can pull off black knickers and long tailcoats, a Herrmann-the-Great elegance that, in the age of T-shirt street specials and live-streamed corporate PR stunts, offers the freshness of the past. He glides over cables and a discarded coffee cup, his hands conducting the movement around him. Before William can reach him, a cluster of people cuts ahead and approaches a staffer. They’d purchased a meet and greet, they say, and their ten minutes started three minutes ago.
William steps back as the fans are herded past him toward the Impossible Man. Before his father can fully face them, hands and phones shoot to the air. The Impossible Man raises his voice, and the room quiets enough for William to make out one fan’s question. It’s the same as all first questions: How this? How that? His father always described magic as dull and repetitive, like any other job. Even when William asked, he never gave away his secrets. A child, he said, deserves to live in wonder. After a while, William stopped asking.
In front of the fans, the Impossible Man offers the same rationale. “I do not protect my secrets. I protect you from my secrets.” He directs all of them to inspect their pockets. Autographed photos! But how did they get there? And how are the fans whom he’s never met in the photos?
The gasps and murmuring die down, and the fans stand in silence for a moment, gauging one another. Someone asks: “Mister…Impossible? Do you ever feel guilty?”
His father grins. “May I ask what I did wrong?”
“Well, I’m curious.” She sweeps back her red bangs and taps an unsharpened pencil tucked behind her ear. “What you do, night in and night out…even as an act, to put your wife through something that looks so violent…”
William stiffens. This woman doesn’t sound like a fan so much as an investigator. She echoes what he’s been reading online. When his father began receiving these kinds of questions, months ago, Mei-Li would be in the room to deflect them. Her husband had never insisted she do this work, she’d say, nor had she been duped into it. Yes, the Impossible Man had come to her village in China on a vision, but she had seen her own vision too. Instead of the cave houses where she lived with her shaman parents, she saw the bright, trimmed lawns of America.
William wants to jump into this ambush. He wants to tell them that the son of the Impossible Man is here too. He was named after William Robinson, a magician who more than a hundred years ago reinvented himself as the Chinese wizard Chung Ling Soo. A man from New York who grew up touring on the vaudeville circuit, Robinson never spoke a word while in his Chinese character. If all he’d done was shave his head and darken his face, how could so many people have believed him? His silence was his greatest trick. “Through it, people saw what they needed to see,” William’s father would say.
“A fearful magician is a failed magician,” he says now, addressing the group, then waves his hand as if to make the question disappear. A typical flourish.
A woman with tight veins on her neck steps in.
“But so many things can go wrong during a show. You must get nervous.”
“Well, when I think of the venerable illusionists that’ve paved the way for me to be here, I suppose—”
“Nervous about getting hurt, I mean.”
The Impossible Man drops his hand. The upward lilt of his stage voice, which seems to belong to another time, drops as well. “A magician who knows what he’s doing always feels safe,” he says.
“Easy for you to say,” a third so-called fan says, thrusting a finger in his direction, “when Mei-Li’s the only one putting herself at risk.” Her fluorescent-orange nail nearly touches his goatee. “Mei-Li’s the only one with any balls.”
It’s after balls that the Impossible Man lunges for the woman’s finger. She and her friends howl, and soon a mess of assistants and security guards jump in. In the scuffle someone yells, “He broke it! He broke it!” The security guards drag the three intruders to the nearest exit.
Later, in her dressing room, William’s mother fails to calm his father. Peeking inside, William spots a toppled chair missing a leg, a mirror shattered. The stage manager scurries past him into the room. “Just bored fucking college kids looking to whip up trouble,” he says. William’s father was right to smash the woman’s phone, he assures him. “I guess they were trying to expose the Impossible Man!”—though for what, the manager couldn’t say.
In the weeks that follow, William’s father swings wrecking balls into his mother. He stuffs her inside coffins. He binds her with cables and douses her with water. During the day, he locks all the doors to the hotel’s performance hall and prepares for a new trick, a simpler yet grander trick. “Defying the Critics,” he calls it, after the infamous bullet-catching illusion of Chung Ling Soo.
“Want to know how it goes?” William’s father asks him one night, over room-service ramen. William nods, a bit too eager. But instead of explaining the new trick, his father repeats a story about the old one, a scene the boy knows all too well. In a packed London theater in 1918, William Robinson steps out of a gold-and-ebony-plated palanquin, clad in warrior’s headdress and robe. One of the assistants, a sword-wielding Japanese man also passing for Chinese, clears his throat and apologizes to the audience for his boss’s inability to speak English. William Robinson—or Chung Ling Soo, as the crowd knows him—squints. His assistant then announces the finale: “Defying the Boxers,” a recreation of the magician’s narrow escape from execution during the horrific rebellion in China.
Two British soldiers from the audience walk onstage to inspect and mark lead bullets offered to them by Chung Ling Soo’s wife. The thin, nimble daughter of German immigrants, his wife had by then changed her name from Olive Path to Suee Seen. At home, she goes by Dot. She watches Chung Ling Soo sway over to one side of the stage, his footfalls heavy, his ponytail grazing the curtain.
No longer squinting, he is handsome, mischievously so. Sharp, slanting eyebrows, an enigmatic, knowing smile. From the other side of the stage, two armored Chinese soldiers deposit the bullets into their rifles. To catch the bullet, Soo holds up a porcelain plate. The assistant raises his sword, gleaming in the light, and the soldiers take aim. Suee Seen retreats backstage, to set up for the next trick. She’s seen her husband catch the bullets countless times already.
The assistant swings the sword downward with a flourish. Gunfire! As the smoke clears, the plate in pieces on the stage, Robinson’s knees buckle. The greatest magician in the world has been shot.
“Bam!” William’s father slams his hand on the table, causing the noodles to jiggle. “The Impossible Man’s a coward. Never puts himself in danger. Well, how about this: The Impossible Man stops a bullet not with a plate, but with his mind!”
Mei-Li steals a glance at William and cuts in. “A lot of moving pieces, this trick…but first, the math has to work.” Magic takes time, she says. William Robinson may have died of a freak accident, but his success before then was all due to his patience. The man didn’t have an entertainer’s charisma. He sold off his most technically brilliant tricks. But he waited until he found a character that suited him.
Their hotel living room carries the smell of his mother’s pain-relief creams and gels, so thick William can taste them in his soup. She’s talking about patter and audience interaction, and he thinks about how of all the Williamses out there, his parents named him after this one. William Robinson: silent, patient, brilliant, white, dead.
His mother bumps her plastic spoon against her bowl, splashing broth over the table. She hurries to dab up the mess, but his father catches her hand.
“Quiet, Mei,” he says. “We have a spy in our midst.”
His father has called him a spy for as long as William has cared about magic, but this time the color drains from William’s face. There had been an actual Chinese magician, he remembers. A man who called himself Ching Ling Foo. He’d been performing in Britain long before William Robinson/Chung Ling Soo arrived on the scene. The two had been rivals, or something to that effect. Chung Ling Soo became the “Original Chinese Conjurer.” And Ching Ling Foo? Well, he didn’t get shot.
One morning, before asking about the trick, William asks his mother about her home. Does she miss China? She’s just come out of rehearsal, and the two of them are taking a shortcut outside through the slot machines, in the hour when guests who haven’t slept cross streams with those who’ve stumbled out of bed. His father is off somewhere with a publicist. Without his father around, William and his mother pass for Chinese tourists, the kind William sees everywhere on the Strip, their sweatpants pockets flush with cash.
“If people in China have it so good,” he asks her, “why haven’t we gone back?”
“Not back,” his mother says, taking a drag of her cigarette. “Not for you.”
“Technically, I was there. In you.”
“Technically, you were me.” His mother presses her thumb and index finger together, which William, forgetting his original question, mistakes as a sign of money. “Just a cell,” his mother says, “dividing into more cells.”
They go to brunch at the Paris a few blocks away. Between Vegas buffets and cafeterias in schools whose names he’s since forgotten, William can taste less the individual ingredients of his meals than the stainless steel of the containers that hold them. Even when the chef sends out omelets with pressed caviar, a dish that isn’t on the buffet line, William can’t discern what makes something already good any better.
He sets down his fork. He picks up his knife. He sets down his knife. He asks his mother again to let him in on the trick. Is there an invisible screen? An audience plant? If it’s so simple, why do they have to wait so long to do it? His mother sighs and tops off her mimosa.
“So many questions,” she says. “You never asked before.” She peers around, as if there are actual spies in their midst. Then she tells William that the secret behind any trick is another trick. A trick begins long before the curtains part. Since they’ve announced plans for a dangerous new finale, ticket sales have shot up. Now she and his father are looking for a house in nearby Summerlin. Their days of chasing gigs and homeschooling William and dodging bills are over. “Isn’t that something? After ‘Defying the Critics,’ we will be able to stay.”
His mother’s words should be hopeful, but she just sounds tired. A waiter in a beret compliments her skirt. Two wide-eyed men bring over their pigtailed daughter and proceed to gush about last night’s show: magic, pure magic. Watching his mother sign their daughter’s dirtied napkin, William wonders if people will one day stop them at restaurants to ask how they could live with a misogynist. Will neighbors bring over pies as housewarming gifts, or will they smash those pies into his father’s face after a show? His mother’s secret only makes sense if his father isn’t the man the Google results say he is. A predator. A racist. William doesn’t know who he is, but he knows who he isn’t.
It’s then that a different future occurs to him, a premonition there on the cobblestoned, lamp-lit streets of the Paris buffet. Growing up watching his mother’s limbs fall off every week, William never doubted that she would come back together. But now, his father is going to put himself on the line. Could it be that the Impossible Man never makes it to the house in Summerlin? That he gives the critics what they want? That he just…dies?
Before long, a larger petition calling for the shuttering of the Impossible Man’s show gains traction. NOT YOUR TWISTED ASIAN FANTASY, the header reads. Despite the show’s no-camera policy, someone posts several images of a performance in which William can just make out the chainsaw sticking out of Mei-Li’s back. After the photos, various captions: What happens in Vegas shouldn’t happen ANYWHERE. Our body =/ your playground.
But his mother isn’t theirs either, William thinks. There are more than 25,000 signatures on the petition so far; it’s appeared on a celebrity’s Instagram story, a paranormal investigator who once sat down with children and told them that the ghosts they claimed to see were real. His father had hated that show, said it served only the vanities of the children’s parents. Now he paces in the other room of their suite, yelling at a lawyer who’s concerned about the safety of their new trick. William slouches over the glow of his phone, his thumb hovering. He makes up a name that sounds Chinese and taps SIGN.
When his parents learn about the petition a few days later, his father seems unfazed. “Those posts, those useless signatures, they only make me more interesting,” he tells William’s mother.
“But what if they’re all from those students? Or a couple of hackers?”
“Jesus, Mei. Now you’re worried about what—the Russians? Chinese?”
“I’m not worried. But maybe you should be.”
His father reaches over his plate of spaghetti and, without warning, flicks his mother’s cheek. William stops spinning his fork.
“Hard enough to be holed up here,” his father says. “So why don’t we at least pretend we’re having a family dinner.”
His mother looks down at her lap. “I was trying to help.”
“So help. Tell William what else they’re saying. Tell him how the Impossible Man went to some Chinese cave and kidnapped Mei-Li. And not just Mei-Li—her baby boy! Tell him that, helper.”
“William’s a grown boy. And I thought you didn’t care about the rumors.”
“I do when they talk about my son. I care when they fuck up his head.”
When his father gets angry like this, William swallows his food without chewing. He wishes away his father’s voice. He locks the yelling, along with David Copperfield’s “Statue of Liberty,” in a faraway vault. But now there are more voices—strangers’ voices, voices unattached to faces, and he hears their rage more clearly than his father’s or his own. William can’t shut out all the voices, so he dashes out of the suite and down the stairs. His mother calls after him, but he knows she won’t follow.
Outside the hotel, the Strip smells of copper and stale cologne. A family laughs at a Mickey Mouse passed out next to an empty liquor bottle. Another family aims their phones at a drummer shredding on a set of buckets. Flyers of naked women form a makeshift trail that William follows (an odd thrill to stamp over their breasts) as he wanders as far north as the Venetian Hotel. There, a group of people finely dressed in masquerade pile into a limo. A lanky woman crowned with peacock feathers points in his direction, only for him to realize that she’s calling for the driver taking a smoke break behind him. By the time William walks back to the Wynn, all the buildings thrum with light.
The Impossible Man’s show has begun. Four or five protestors form a human chain at the hotel entrance, but there are too few of them, and too many entrances. Earlier that day, William noticed the petitions against the Impossible Man had moved up to the first page of the search results. A scary thought seizes him now: Maybe his Googling has made the protestors come. He ducks past them and back to the suite, buries his face in the sofa’s pillows.
By the time his parents return, he’s pretending to sleep. His mother sits beside him, threading his hair through her fingers, which are trembling again post-show. If he ever asked her about her hands, she might say, Just some light turbulence. She might say, Buckle your seatbelts, nothing to worry about, folks. Her earrings tinkle, and she breathes hard as she tugs off the upturned shoes that make her feet look bound. For once, she’s come back to the hotel without first changing in the theater. Behind her, his father has joined them in the room, a darker darkness behind William’s eyelids. The man whispers to his mother, who’s moved off the bed, with words so faint they might as well have been Chinese.
There is no Impossible Man without Mei-Li, the critics insist. But is there a Mei-Li without the Impossible Man? In the early days, his parents would bring William to their birthday-party gigs, even when he didn’t know the kids. Afterward, they’d go eat, and his parents would end up more than a little drunk. He remembers the time they fell to the ground, laughing into each other’s mouths. Is that right? Or did his father, falling, drag his mother down with him? Did she cry out? Then the man snored in bed while his mother was in the bathroom, one foot propped on the edge of the tub, William handing her rubbing alcohol to clean the scrapes on her knee. But if she was so hurt, why does he remember her later joining his father in bed, whispering to him the way they whispered to each other now?
Maybe they talked like this in the caves of Sichuan, he thinks, turning away, plugging his ears. Maybe they spoke over the din of bugs in a language they will never use in front of him, their one and only son, for whom it is all just gibberish.
The next morning, his parents have left for the performance hall. The show will be closing in a month, and they need to plow ahead if they’re going to premiere “Defying the Critics” by the last week. They bury themselves in rehearsals. Among the Impossible Man’s detractors online, opinion vacillates between wanting to shut down his show early and waiting to see how far his morally bankrupt mind will go. Most people focus on the Impossible Man, but in one subreddit, Asian men are railing against his assistant. They claim that Mei-Li hates herself, because why else would she want to be a white-worshipping whore? William doesn’t know many Asian men—his grandfather, dead before William was born, and a second cousin in New Zealand—but after stumbling across the subreddit, he begins to wonder if he even qualifies as an Asian man.
Forget you; who would I be if Dad died? he wants to ask now, watching his mother sweep her hand along the granite counters at the house in Summerlin. She tests the faucet over the vegetable sink. The realtor had called it a vegetable sink, and his mother had acted as if she knew what that was.
“Do you think I look white?” he blurts out.
His mother frowns. “What are you saying, Will? Miss—excuse me, Miss? The vegetable sink, can you help me? Do I turn it this way? Or that?”
Later, as they walk upstairs, out of earshot of the agent, his mother takes his arm with greater firmness. “Everything okay?” They step into an empty room among other empty rooms on the floor, any of which could be his if his parents’ residency is renewed. The agent had talked about extra wiring and radiant barriers, and he’d wondered if she’d made up the words.
“I look, like, all Asian. Right?”
His mother rubs a patch of glitter from the corner of her eye. “You look like my son,” she says. She walks toward the window and, placing her arms on an invisible desk, sits down in an invisible chair. “This is it. This is your room.”
“Maybe my real dad’s in China. Maybe some Chinese guy fucked you.”
“Maybe none of the Impossible Man is me.”
His mother is about to snap at him, but with the same dancerly motion she uses to correct a trick, she gathers the air back inside her lungs. “So you think you’re here because some man fucked me,” she says.
They don’t speak during the car ride back. The sun warms his cheek, and William wonders if his sort-of premonition was wrong after all. The future he keeps seeing lacks a necessary third act: the Impossible Man reborn, chopping celery sticks next to a fully functioning vegetable sink. This man is simple. Gentle. Asian. His lovely Asian wife stirs a thick soup at the stove. Their backs are turned to each other, because they already know every inch of each other’s faces. Their son, a perfect blend of the two, sits at the table, waiting to be fed.
The afternoon before the premiere of “Defying the Critics,” William’s father takes him to Vegas’s Chinatown. They weave through parking lots as big as casinos, surrounded by strip malls that seemingly stretch for miles. William sees not only Chinese businesses but Filipino, Vietnamese, Japanese, Thai ones. People who could be his uncles and aunts file out of tour buses, crossing traffic with restaurant workers, gamblers, grandparents who bark at their insolent grandchildren. William can’t tell if people are staring at his father because they recognize him or if it’s something else. His father always looks away.
In one of the shops, a pink silk dress embroidered with an intricate floral design catches his father’s eye. He holds it to the mirror, imagining Mei-Li wearing it. The dress’s backless cut does not resemble something from the old days, but the elderly Chinese storeowner assures them that this is the look of a princess.
“Lucky woman!” the owner says, as she hands over the receipt. His father laughs.
They pass through the other stores, accumulating more clothes, more pendants, more hoop earrings and Chinese-style linking rings—rings as “Chinese” as the dress, his father lets him know with a wink. Without thinking, William asks his father what made him choose his mother. What made her more special than the other Chinese women in those Sichuan caves?
His father considers, fumbling with a jade bracelet. He ushers William to the door. “Your mom’s as beautiful now as she was then,” he says outside. “She had her pick of stronger men. Men who built the houses, raked the fields, hauled potatoes. She even had lovers before me, you know.”
William feels as if he’s at the precipice of something. If the Impossible Man is not his father, what would it mean to him if he died? People die every day. Once in Sichuan, an earthquake killed enough people to fill twenty-five of his parents’ sold-out shows. Maybe family he’d never even met had fallen into the earth.
His father lays a hand on his shoulder. “You’re a good spy,” he says. “You’ve seen things.”
“I know you’ve been reading the articles. The petitions.”
In the parking lot, they pass a man who might be drunk, bumping into one car and another. William can’t tell where he’s from—maybe India? His sunglasses are missing a lens; it looks like he’s wearing an eye patch.
“I don’t mind, you know,” his father says. “Being hated like that. It sort of turns me on.” His father flashes William one of his trademark devilish grins. “Hey. You want to know the secret to the new trick?”
William nods. Then he shakes his head.
“Your mother shoots a real gun. The audience just doesn’t know that she misses. It’s all about misdirection and angles and effects. Mei-Li’s the best production designer in the business.”
“But Mom shoots?” William asks. He thinks about her hands.
But his father has already moved on. Has he told William about William Robinson’s last words? “Get this, son. That moment when he gets shot, everyone still thinks he’s Chung Ling Soo, right? But then he shouts, ‘Oh my god. Something’s happened. Lower the curtain.’” His father raises the pitch of his voice, though if it’s to sound like William Robinson or his persona, William can’t tell. “Can you believe it?” he says. “The finest Chinese magician in the world speaks on stage for the first time. And it’s in perfect English.”
On the ride back, other voices worm their way inside William’s head. He tries to drown them out with the radio. After his father drops him off at the hotel, William paces in his room, failing to keep the voices subdued. You know the one where your dad saws your mom in half? one voice tells him. You hear the one where he jams a stick of fire down her throat? says another. In the shower, he resolves to stop thinking about the ending of the trick. “Defying the Critics” is so simple, a person with missing fingers could pull it off.
In her bedroom, his mother adjusts the collars of his new dress shirt. She taps the corner of his lip, the hair that’s beginning to grow there. She taps his cheek, the space between his eyes. He wonders if she’s tapping invisible buttons, if something inside him is about to activate. “You look awful,” she says, laughing. “Today, not so much like Mom.”
He lowers his voice. “You don’t have to do it.”
She smooths the creases on his shoulder. He waits for her hands to shake again, but they don’t. She says, “Oh, Will, this new trick is nothing special.” Doesn’t he want his pick of bedrooms with balconies? Of course he does, she answers for him, as she fixes his cuffs.
His mother suggests that he relax in the suite, watch a movie, but William shakes her off and helps her carry her bags down to the theater. Instead of eating, he stays in her dressing room. He can smell the powder that the assistants dab on her face. His father slips in to check on them, his long tailcoat fanning them as he spins in and out of the room, back to his gliding ways. He catches Mei-Li’s gaze in the mirror; William hides behind his laptop.
Half an hour before the show, William ducks out to go to the bathroom. He forces his hands under scalding water. When he comes back, the door is cracked open. The assistants have cleared the room; his father is back. His mother stands in her undergarments. His father bends down on his knee breeches before her, ready to slide the silk dress that he bought earlier that day up from her feet.
But first he kneads the small of her back, the ridges of her spine. “Here,” he says, as he touches one bruise on her stomach. “Here,” he says, to a darker one along her side. His mother flinches at his touch. She smiles at an empty corner of the room. His father traces each bruise, as though he is redrawing a map, rubbing out the elevation.
There is a story here too. But before he can watch any more, William rushes past the door and joins his father on the ground. He reaches for the man’s face, grasping onto his hair, the lapels of his black velvet coat. There’s no reason to do this trick, William says. They don’t have to live in a nice house. It doesn’t matter, as long as the three of them are together.
“You’ll die,” William says. It’s more a hunch than a powerful premonition, but his belief comes from somewhere, like knowing one card in the tarot deck is warmer than the rest. His father is quiet. “Mom’s hands,” William says. “They shake.” It’s nothing his father doesn’t already know. The man’s face remains unmoved. Does he not believe William? Does he not want to? An audience wants magic, he likes to say, not honesty.
His father takes stock of him, his face wrapped with intense curiosity. They’re going on any minute, his mother butts in, but his father waves her off. Why does William seem so scared? he asks.
“It’s okay,” William says, as if his father is the one who is scared. He hears himself parroting the man’s previous reassurances. He hears the man’s voice in his. He’s sorry for signing all those petitions, he says. But even if what those people say is real, it’s okay. If his father never performs again, that’s okay too. “Be a monster if you want,” William says, lowering his voice. “But please, Dad. Don’t do this.”
He’s put the words into the air, which makes him want to believe them, to keep going. He’s sorry for signing all those petitions, he says. He just wanted to stop the trick from happening.
For a breath, his father stares at William, with a deep and awful recognition. Then he slaps him across the face. William stumbles into his mother. Instead of touching his cheek, he hides his face against her, her skin sallow and cold.
“Don’t,” she says to his father. Her hands are still.
William wants to tell her that his father didn’t hit him that hard, that it only looked painful, like any good trick. But already he can feel her sigh deeply, fold backward, as if she was the one slapped.
There is a gap by the door. Electricians and security guards and dancers and stage managers walk past it. His father departs through it too.
Alone with his mother, William’s mind goes blank. He can’t picture the house in Summerlin anymore. “Maybe we should move back to China,” he says.
His mother lets herself smile. “China. What a word. China.”
“China,” he says, and the more he says it, the stranger it sounds.
“I’ve never been to China,” his mother says. Somehow, this does not surprise William. China had never felt like a real place anyway.
“You stay,” she says to William. With a swoop of her arm, she slips on the dress.
What William does not see: His father, gagging his mother’s mouth. Burying her under a mound of dirt. He conjures an orange tree from that dirt, tosses an orange into the crowd, and the radiant and delicate Mei-Li appears out of nowhere to catch it.
In the dark of the theater, a single beam lands on his mother. Her orange has transformed into a pistol. “And now,” she says, waving the gun over the nearby cowering heads, “I invite anyone who’d like to assist me in shooting the Impossible Man to raise their hand.”
No one does. To hear Mei-Li’s voice for the first time, saying a thing like that. Surely there’s a kicker. The gun can’t be real. “Any indignant souls in the audience?” she says. “Anyone feel spurred to action? Please, join me, on behalf of justice.”
A few people eventually rise, one of whom is a woman in her early thirties. She’s a reporter commissioned by a national publication to review the show in fewer than a thousand words. It’s no cover story, but the rate is decent.
She tucks her phone inside her purse and follows the two other volunteers and Mei-Li onto the stage. She smooths out her skirt suit (she’d forgotten to run a lint roller over it, and the dander nearly sparkles under the lights). The cut inside her cheek flares up. The Impossible Man offers her a sheepish grin.
Mei-Li ejects the magazine and removes a bullet from the clip. She asks the volunteers to verify the bullet’s authenticity. One is an army veteran, another a hunting enthusiast; they both tell the audience that the bullet is real. Once the bullet makes its way to the reporter’s hands, Mei-Li gives her a permanent marker and asks her to draw a small X on the casing. After she does, Mei-Li returns the bullet to the clip. The Impossible Man watches his wife, but when she meets his eye, he turns away. Silence fills the theater. Mei-Li locks the magazine into place, clicks off the safety, slides the chamber back.
The reporter chuckles as Mei-Li releases the other two volunteers but for some reason asks her to stay. She hands the reporter a small black flag, directs her to take a spot upstage, facing the audience. Then, Mei-Li approaches her husband. The Impossible Man takes a step backward, and Mei-Li takes a larger step forward. Soon the woman is so close, the reporter wonders if they are about to kiss.
“Don’t be afraid,” Mei-Li says to the Impossible Man, raising the gun. She grazes his temple with the muzzle, slides it down, traces the side of his face.
Through the exchange, the Impossible Man stands alert. He winces. The reporter wonders if he is acting nervous for the crowd. Selling it the way Mei-Li had.
But then Mei-Li walks away, takes her own place toward the back of the stage, twenty or so feet away from her husband. She tells the reporter to raise the flag toward the ceiling, and after a moment’s hesitation, she does. The reporter forms a fist so the flag doesn’t wobble, though it feels as heavy as a sword. The Impossible Man looks at it, and then at Mei-Li—with eyes, the reporter notes, full of pleading.
It would be easier if he could laugh, she thinks. If he could mutter some cheesy pun. Wink, for fuck’s sake.
But already Mei-Li’s voice boomerangs back to the reporter, asking if she is ready. She isn’t, but she nods anyway. Mei-Li raises her gun, puts her finger to the trigger, and the audience counts down. Clutching the flag, the reporter closes her eyes. When she opens them again, her body is vibrating, her raised arm aching. Mei-Li’s gun remains pointed at the Impossible Man, but now she’s looking at the reporter. She’s smiling at her. Her hands are still.
The flag must come down, the reporter knows. But holding it, she imagines the Impossible Man after the show, back in his hotel room, Mei-Li by his side. Husband and wife changed out of their costumes and sharing a pizza in bed, marinara sauce splashed over the sheets. She had planned to condemn the show. Maybe now she’ll write a puff piece. Already she can conjure the details. A bottle of champagne, wrapped in a big yellow bow. Compliments of the producers, to celebrate a legendary finale. Here’s to next year, the card reads. 2020, baby!
They have a son, too, right?
He’s also on the bed. He’s hoping his parents will let him have a sip. Just one? His mother sighs, and his father ruffles his hair before picking up the bottle. Smirking, he aims the cork at his son for a second, before redirecting it toward the wall.
It was only pretend.
Still, the boy shuts his eyes, waiting for the pop.