Zanders the Magnificent
by Annie Neugebauer
“My handsome, darling boys,” Mrs. Zander said, placing a hand on each of their shoulders. “Which one of you wants to be alive today?”
Robby and Bobby turned their heads inward at the same time, staring at each other with identical dark eyes. Bobby blinked, followed shortly by Robby’s blink, and they both said, “Bobby. Robby was alive yesterday.”
Mrs. Zander nodded approvingly, clapping her hands against their shoulder blades. “Good, yes. I like it when you agree,” she said. “Now both of you go get Bobby ready for school.”
The boys lurched into a sprint together, their narrow shoulders brushing past the door frame at the same time, their synched footsteps thumping down the hall.
When they were safely within their bedroom, Bobby shut the door. Robby went and flopped on the left bed – indistinguishable from the right bed in everything but placement in the room – and sighed. “I wish it was Saturday so we could both live,” he said, covering his face with his arms.
“I know,” Bobby agreed.
They weren’t supposed to be talking like this, and Robby was supposed to be getting ready at the same time as Bobby, but their mother probably wouldn’t check in on them so soon.
“You’ll tell me everything?” Robby prompted.
Bobby pulled on a red and white striped shirt. Once his messy hair poked through, he shook his head like a duck ruffling its feathers. Robby never noticed that before. He tucked it into memory to practice later.
Bobby grabbed the matching red and white striped shirt out of Robby’s drawer and tossed it to him on the bed, his silent urge to get up and get ready. “Of course,” he said. “I always tell you everything.”
Finally, Robby stood, pulling the shirt over his head and settling his hair like a duck.
The door opened, and Mrs. Zander’s eyes raked over them. “What are you doing?” she snapped. Robby’s eyes dropped to his pajama pants. Bobby already had his jeans on.
“Sorry Mama,” they said simultaneously. There was a scramble as Robby rushed to change pants and Bobby tried to decide whether to take his back off to mimic Robby or wait for him to catch up.
“This will take more dedication than that,” Mrs. Zander scolded them. “Didn’t you learn anything from your father?”
The boys looked down at the ground, and Mrs. Zander huffed and walked out, leaving the door open behind her.
Robby put his hands over his face. Bobby mirrored him.
Mrs. Zander sat in the rocker as Robby watched out the blinds. Bobby walked down the sidewalk to the bus stop. Robby’s feet stepped in place with his twin’s; his hands rose to adjust an invisible backpack when Bobby adjusted his.
Mrs. Zander let out a strangled sob, and Robby turned. “Don’t cry, Mama.”
She sniffed and held out her arms, and Robby climbed into her lap. She wrapped him in a tight hug. “I’m just so sorry that you can’t both be alive today,” she said into his hair.
Robby’s hand patted her arm as his ear pressed to her chest for her heartbeat. Unlike when he could hear Bobby’s, he did not try to match his heart to hers.
“So sorry that both of my boys can’t yet stun the world with their splendor.”
Robby heard her crying quiet, and then she was chuckling.
“But it will be the most magnificent trick,” she said. “It will be the most magnificent trick, my darling. It will all be worth it.”
She began humming, deep within her chest, and the chair rocked back and forth, back and forth.
“So you will stay home with your mother today. You will be dead, and we’ll have a marvelous time.”
Robby, Bobby, and Mrs. Zander were all in the practice room. Robby and Bobby stood on either side of the stage, and Mrs. Zander lounged in a seat at the back of the room, the knitting forgotten on her lap. The boys were practicing the mouse trick, although now they were just using golf balls.
Robby lifted his cape with one hand, raising the wand in the other. A fraction of a moment later, Bobby’s flowed out as well, but Mrs. Zander interrupted.
“Timing, boys. Timing. Bobby, you must start precisely when Robby does. And both of you must use more drama in your movements. Remember your father’s stage presence, and work toward his proficiency. You must master that before we can learn the truly show-stopping tricks. To impress today’s audiences it must be something new. Something edgy.”
Robby scratched his cheek. Bobby scratched his cheek.
Mrs. Zander frowned. “Again.”
This time, both capes swept out simultaneously, like black wings lined in blood.
“I am Zanders the Magnificent,” they declared as one. Their capes stayed extended on one side as the support arms snapped into place, making it appear as if they were still holding them up.
“Welcome to the show!”
Each reached down on cue to retrieve the golf ball “mouse” from the clear plexiglass box. Bobby’s fingers snuck in as quickly and furtively as a mouse itself, as did Robby’s. But on the way out, Robby messed up. The lid to the box snapped shut on the tip of his fingers with a violent crack.
Robby howled in pain. He jerked his hand out, and as he did so he screamed louder, dropping his wand to hold the brilliantly red fingers up in front of him. His mouth formed a perfect oval bordered by his small teeth.
Bobby looked anxiously at Mrs. Zander.
“Bobby,” she said sternly.
His face flushed. “But Mama.”
“Robert Zander, don’t make me come up there.”
Bobby gritted his teeth together, sliding his trembling hand back into the box. A loud crack, and Bobby began wailing as well. He dropped his wand and held up his own red fingers, forming his mouth into a perfect oval.
Mrs. Zander stood and set her knitting on the seat before she walked up to the stage. She swatted Bobby firmly on the butt. “That’s for hesitating,” she said.
Then she swatted Robby, too, because she would never spank one and not the other.
“You must both be more disciplined,” she scolded. “Think of your father, and how disciplined he was, and even that was not enough. You must never forget what he went through. You must always remember that it is life and death on the stage. You must give the people what they want.”
Their yelling began to simmer into hiccupping sobs, each casting looks out the corner of his eyes to get the timing right.
“Now come on, my sweet boys,” Mrs. Zander said. “Let’s tend to those slow little fingers.” She drew them both to her and led them out of the room. “Let’s make sure those hands are fixed up good.”
In the empty practice stage glowing under the lights, the two white practice mice sat in the identical corners of their identical clear boxes, dead as golf balls.
As Mrs. Zander sat in her rocker and did her knitting, she imagined what the boys would look like at their first public show, when they were all grown up, even more famous than their father. With no paper record to prove their dual existence, their tricks would fool even other master magicians. They would become a worldwide sensation.
As Robby walked down the sidewalk to the bus, he longed to have his brother at his side. He imagined how many other people on the planet might be dead.
As Bobby watched him from the window, walking in place, he longed to be at his brother’s side. He imagined what it might be like to be alive every single day.
“Ladies and gentleman, you’re in for a treat! Tonight is the debut performance of the son of legendary escape artist Robert Zander, who, as some of you remember, met his tragic end over two decades ago during the stunt that is now known as the Chamber of Death. But thankfully for the world of magic, he has left a son to carry on his great name. May I introduce to you the one, the only… Zanders the Magnificent!”
Applause exploded through the room.
Bobby – all grown up – dashed onto the stage, tall and lean with his black cape billowing behind him. When he stepped into the spotlight, the red and white sequins on his shirt sparkled and winked at the dark, packed audience. In the front row sat Mrs. Zander, her hands clasped tightly in her lap, her eyes alight with a strange glow.
Backstage, Robby watched, hidden in the black curtains, his lips ghosting the shapes of Bobby’s words, his arms sketching phantom movements.
“Welcome,” he intoned in a deep voice, “to the most magnificent show you will ever see.” The crowd grew hushed, and he sent his words out like sleek promises through the shadows of the room.
“Tonight, I bring you wonder!” He took a deep bow, extending his cape out behind him with both arms, and when he stood back up, he held a long-stemmed red rose between his teeth. The crowd hummed.
“Danger!” He tossed it out over the seating, and in mid-air the rose changed to a cluster of scarlet streamers, falling like fireworks over the audience. The crowd ooed.
“And possibly even death!” He swept his arms in and back out, and the lining of his cape had changed from black to glistening red. The crowd gasped.
“But one thing is for certain: by the end of the evening, you will feel more alive than you’ve ever felt.” Thunderous applause.
“Let the show begin!”
With a billow of smoke, Bobby disappeared into a trap door. Instantaneously, Robby appeared on a balcony over the stage, and the crowd went wild.
They looked so much like their father had at their age.
Mrs. Zander’s eyes filled with tears as she watched her boys – no, boy. Tonight they were indistinguishable. With the heavy black eyeliner covering the single tiny freckle under Robby’s eye that allowed her to tell them apart, she could not even follow which was which. They were that identical. In their first public performance, they had truly become one.
They had truly become magnificent.
The young man on stage sent the audience into delighted giggles as the white mouse disappeared from the small clear box, only to reappear in the pocket on the front of his glittering shirt.
Mrs. Zander knew that there were truly two white mice, identical in every way, one hidden from the eyes of others at all times so it appeared to the world that only one existed. It was the oldest trick in the book – one that took grave dedication to execute so seamlessly.
Robert would have been proud of them all, she knew.
The tears in her eyes spilled over.
“And for my last trick,” pronounced Robby, “I will need a volunteer.”
His words brought a deep silence to the room, followed by a rush of movement as arms all over the theatre shot into the air. He looked against the stage lights into the darkness, scanning the front row for his mother’s surprised face.
“You there,” he said, sweeping one arm in the direction of her seat. “Yes, you. Come on up. Ladies and gentleman, can we give her a hand?”
Grudging applause sounded as Mrs. Zander made her way onstage. Robby could see the confusion in her eyes; this was not part of the act they’d planned. He caught a cordless mic tossed to him by a stagehand.
“What is your name, ma’am?”
Mrs. Zander blinked at him.
“Ladies and gentleman, it would seem we have a shy volunteer! Can we give her another round of applause?”
The crowd cheered loudly, and under the roar Robby said, “Play along, Mama. It’s all for the sake of the show.”
When they quieted down, Robby put the mic to her mouth and she said, “My name is Marie.”
“Well hello, Marie. Thank you for volunteering! For the assurance of our audience, please tell us: do you have any knowledge of the trick we are about to perform?”
“No,” she said honestly.
“All the better,” Robby said, shooting the crowd a conspiratorial grin. They all chuckled with anticipation. “You have lovely legs,” he told her, and Mrs. Zander gave him a baffled look, shifting nervously on her feet. Then an assistant wheeled out a large box roughly the shape of a casket. Robby centered it on the stage and pulled out an enormous saw with ragged teeth, lifting it to glint in the stage lights. “I hope you aren’t overly attached to them.”
The crowd laughed.
Unseen backstage, Bobby mouthed the line with him, timing perfect.
Robby set down the saw and lifted the top of the box upward so the audience could see inside. Their surprise was palpable. They could clearly see that there was no divider inside the box – no second woman curled up in the lower half to put her legs out the opening.
“Marie?” Robby asked, lifting out a hand for support. “If you would be so kind?”
Mrs. Zander eyed the restraints visible on the bottom of the box.
“Don’t get cold feet now,” Robby said. Again, a chuckle from the crowd.
Mrs. Zander stepped up and stretched out in the box. Robby went about fastening the restraints tightly around her shoulders, wrists, waist, and thighs. The silence in the auditorium grew so full that even the back row could hear the rubbing sound of the straps being pulled tight.
When Robby shut the lid, all that stuck out were Mrs. Zander’s head and her feet.
“Tonight,” Robby declared, “you will see a woman sawed in half.” Backstage, Bobby’s lips traced the sounds.
In the booming applause, Mrs. Zander turned her face toward her son, away from the audience. “I don’t know how this works,” she whispered. “How do I undo the straps to pull my legs up?”
“You must give the people what they want,” he told her, smiling. “Something new. Something… edgy.”
Mrs. Zander’s eyes grew wide as golf balls.
“Which half of you wants to be alive today, Mama?”
Robby picked the saw back up and grinned at the crowd. “On three,” he told them.
“One!” He raised it dramatically over his head.
Mrs. Zander looked at the audience with terrified, roving eyes.
“Two!” He lowered it to the notch in the middle of the box.
Mrs. Zander thrashed her feet and head about, trying to break free of her restraints.
“Don’t worry, Mama,” he whispered. “You will be dead, and we’ll have a marvelous time.”
In the wings, Bobby’s arm had already begun a sawing motion.
About the Author
Annie Neugebauer is a Bram Stoker Award-nominated author with work appearing and forthcoming in more than a hundred publications, including magazines such as Cemetery Dance, Apex, and Black Static, and anthologies such as Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volumes 3 and 4 and #1 Amazon bestsellers Killing It Softly and Fire. She’s a columnist for Writer Unboxed and LitReactor. You can visit her at www.AnnieNeugebauer.com.
About the Narrator
Jon Padgett is a professional–though lapsed–ventriloquist who lives in New Orleans with his spouse, their daughter, and a rescue dog and cat. He is the Editor-In-Chief of Vastarien: A Literary Journal, a source of critical study and creative response to the work of Thomas Ligotti as well as associated authors and ideas. Padgett’s first short story collection, The Secret of Ventriloquism, was named the Best Fiction Book of 2016 by Rue Morgue Magazine.
He has work out or forthcoming in Weird Fiction Review, PseudoPod, Lovecraft eZine, Xnoybis, and the anthologies A Walk on the Weird Side, Wound of Wounds, Phantasm/Chimera, For Mortal Things Unsung, and Ashes and Entropy.