by Barry Wiley
Enjoy this Christmas short story, with just a bit of a mysterious twist to it.
Tulsa, Oklahoma, Wednesday, December 15, 1892
Sitting on a cushion on a board across two saw-horses on the stage, Kyame Piddington looked down the sides of her nose under the blindfold, being careful, as always, not to tilt her head back to gain a wider view. Tilting her head, Papa had constantly instructed, could give everything away. She watched Papa’s feet, how quickly he moved them, placed them, how long he stood motionless according to their relentlessly practiced timed-count, all his movements silently conveying a number in their memorized list of objects and subjects, which now reached 250 objects in each list.
The second number that Papa “sent” would give her more details and then Kyame would have to fill-in whatever blanks remained based on her two year experience doing the act after the death of her mother from consumption. Now, at thirteen, if she didn’t get the numbers right and didn’t effectively sell her smokey acting to the audience, she and Papa would not eat and The Impossible Piddingtons could no longer get bookings at major locations like the Tulsa Opera House, where they would be for another four days, when the Opera House would begin featuring only the Christmas programs of the local churches and schools.
Responding to Papa’s sending had gradually become second nature, but Kyame always had to focus, focus everything on … when she stepped on the stage, Kyame had to believe she was real, really reading Papa’s mind or the audience wouldn’t believe. Somehow, the audience could always sense her belief. To Kyame, that was the real mystery of second sight.
“Ah, Ma’am … Mrs. Munroe, isn’t it?” Kyame heard the woman gasp and the agitating murmurs around her. “Your son … Joseph … Joseph gave you the brooch at your throat … just before he went to war. Papa, please step closer to Mrs. Munroe so I can see it better.” She heard someone, sounded like a man, move near the stage. She didn’t hear him moving away … was he still there, almost at her feet? Uneasiness crept up her spine …there were louder whisperings along with chairs scrapping and moving as some of the audience moved to watch Mrs. Munroe more closely.
Kyame had no idea how Papa knew about Joseph and his death in the Civil War, but he would explain later as part of her ever maturing psychic education. She closed her eyes in case whoever was near the stage was trying to catch a glimpse of her eyes under the blindfold.
“The ivory figure of the Greek goddess … Athena, I think … set in the green stone. It is so pretty, Mrs. Munroe.” Papa had signaled ‘last’ along with her name and brooch, so Kyame would close their show with this woman. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Munroe, I am not a Spiritualist medium. I cannot speak to the departed, as you want. I cannot answer your unspoken question to Joseph who died at Gettysburg, but I get a sense, a warm feeling, that he knows you baked his favorite … chocolate … chocolate walnut cake today … on his birthday.”
Mrs. Munroe’s agonized scream and sobbing confirmed her direct hit. Papa had sent birthday cake and today, Kyame had supplied the rest. Papa had always encouraged her to go with her hunches in her smokey acting. Her insights, after all, had been tempered under pressure.
Kyame slid off the cushion as she pulled the blindfold from her eyes. “Too tired … too tired, Papa, to do more.” The man who was still standing near the stage was very well dressed with a strange expression on his face framed by trimmed black mutton-chop whiskers. He turned to walk back to his chair, but turned to glance back at her, then sat down next to a beautifully gowned woman and a teen-age son. He leaned over to talk with the boy.
With the audience applauding while friends of Mrs. Munroe gathered round her, John Piddington rushed up the central aisle to his gently smiling daughter as she brushed her black hair back from her green eyes. Kyame glowed, seeing him shake his right fist once, his signal for a solid job. Papa’s signal meant more than anything.
Kyame watched Papa go the door. Everything was packed; they were ready to leave for the boarding house. Papa would carry the large valise with her performing gowns and shoes, while she would carry the smaller one. Another impatient knock just as he pulled the door open.
“Mr. Piddington, I am Jonathan Arson Anthony. I would like to speak with you, confidentially … a business proposition, if you would.” He was the well-dressed man with the black mutton-chop whiskers who had stood near the stage.
Kyame scanned Anthony as she would an audience member. Very well dressed, white spats, white vest with blue and white high-collared starched shirt. She couldn’t describe his suit, it was beyond her experience. There was a neatly dressed teen-age boy just behind him that Kyame instantly disliked. Too much like the church-goers who so casually dismissed her as only a theatre girl – not worth noting – though the familiar lust was already in his blue eyes.
“Come in, Mr. Anthony. This is my daughter, Kyame. Please be seated.” He moved the valises against the wall.
Anthony only glanced at her. “My oldest son, Thomas Campbell Anthony.”
Piddington extended his hand which the lanky boy barely touched.
Once seated, Anthony said, “I will be brief. I will pay you $500 to teach my son and me your act that we can perform it at our family Christmas Party” – Kyame could almost see the capital letters – “at our home, Arson Manor, on the 23rd and you will be paid when I am satisfied I have received my value.”
A deep chill plunged down Kyame’s back. Five hundred dollars, all at once! But to sell their only treasure, undoubtedly to be exposed after the party performance or even during it, as the Anthony’s could not learn second sight in less than eight days? No one could – not when it had taken her over a year with on-stage pressure to begin to capture and project the reality that audiences expected and paid for.
Papa paused. “How soon would you need an answer, Mr. Anthony?” he asked quietly, with a glance at Kyame. She had gotten his ‘get ready’ sign, then a number, then another. She was sitting near the back wall of the dressing room, while both Anthony’s were seated facing Papa. There was no way she could physically see what Anthony had just taken in his right hand.
Kyame shifted turning her back to the Anthony’s. “That is a beautiful gold watch, Mr. Anthony,” she said, softly. “A family heirloom, perhaps? Particularly with the affectionate inscription from your grandfather. Let me see … “To Jon … Keep pushing. Gramps.” Is that it?” She remained with her back turned.
Frowning, the boy jerked around. “Sir, what is going on?” He looked at Kyame, then back at Piddington, who was still seated exactly as he had been. “What kind of a blind trick was that?’ he snarled.
Unsmiling, Kyame glanced back over her shoulder. “Mr. Anthony?”
Anthony stood and turned toward her, smiling, his watch in his right hand, its gold chain extending to his waistcoat. “You are quite correct, young lady, quite correct. My congratulations to you both. Five hundred dollars, Mr. Piddington, to teach my son and me to duplicate what you have just done, and to answer your question, Mr. Piddington, by seven tonight. Any later and my offer becomes $200. Any messenger knows my home. Let us rejoin your mother, Thomas, who will be becoming impatient.”
As the door clicked shut, Kyame pleaded, “No, Papa, we can’t. It’s our only treasure. They are certain to expose everything after whatever show they do … if they don’t destroy it while they are trying to do the coding.”
Papa carried his chair over next to her. “The five hundred would be a major help in saving to send you to art school in Boston, Daughter. That could enable your going months sooner than what we can save from each performance.” He took her hands in his. “But you are right. If we sell for five hundred, we have in the end, sold everything with nothing left.” He leaned back in his chair, frowning.
“Can’t we sell them two, maybe three of our old publicity stunts? We can work out new methods or new stunts. Maybe we can get $200.” Cocking her head, Kyame looked up into his eyes. She grinned. “We sure could have a turkey dinner for Christmas then.”
Papa laughed. “Yes, I will explain that our performance is too complex to ensure success in only a few days instruction, and suggest … let’s see … three stunts for $300. We could demonstrate the stunts on the stage here before the evening shows … and maybe use some of the backstage men as an audience.” He nodded. “Then teach them the method afterwards. What do you think?”
Kyame said, “Yes, that might do it.”
The backstage handlers and prop men stood in a loose row against the back curtain. The theatre was empty, the evening program still two hours away. Papa had ensured that at least ten men would be available. Thomas had escorted Kyame to a point behind the curtain where she stood with her eyes closed, out of Papa’s sight and hearing. “This is just silly stuff. No one’s going to be impressed,” he snapped.
Kyame remained silent, her eyes closed. A moment, then another.
“Thomas, escort Miss Piddington out here.”
Kyame felt his hand on her elbow. Her eyes still closed, Kyame brushed against the curtain as she moved back to the open stage area.
“You may open your eyes, Miss Piddington,” said Anthony. “Thomas, could the girl hear anything? Or see anything?”
“No, sir. I made sure.”
“Good. Now, Miss Piddington, what is the number?”
Kyame opened her eyes and knew immediately what the number was.
The stunt was that she would be completely isolated and watched, while Papa wrote down random digits called out by the men and by Anthony. He added them up on a slate. The number she was to “receive” was the total of the digits, a number completely unknown until the arbitrary digits called out had been added up. Then Papa gave the slate on which the numbers were written, wrapped in a cloth so that the slate itself could not be seen, to one of the men. He was then escorted away to be completely out of sight before Kyame returned to the stage.
Anthony had immediately agreed to Papa’s note and the $300, and liked the description of the first stunt. “Basically impossible, Thomas. Excellent for Christmas,” he had said when Papa explained the effect of the stunt to Anthony and to the men, one of which said, “Piddington, if I hadn’t already seen what you and your remarkable daughter do every night, I would agree with Mr. Anthony. It is impossible, but you two do that every night.” The men, Papa and Kyame had laughed. The two Anthony’s were silent.
“Show me,” Thomas had muttered.
“I see a number…”
“God … of course!” snapped Thomas.
Ignoring him, Kyame continued, “… a number … of two digits. I see the number … 29.”
The man holding the cloth-covered slate went pale. “My God! That’s right! But there is no way you could know. No way at all … unless ….”
Even Thomas was stunned to silence. His father only nodded.
When Papa was escorted back to the stage, Jonathan Arson Anthony, frowning, said, “Do it again, Piddington, before I will pay anything.”
Guarded once again by Thomas, Kyame returned to the stage at Anthony’s order and, after extending her hands, fingers spread, announced, “Thirty-two.”
The stage manager, holding the cloth-covered slate, shook his head in disbelief. “By God, Piddingtons, you’ve done it again!”
Anthony nodded when John Piddington returned to the stage. As the men turned to preparing for the night’s program, he said quietly, “That is worth $100, Piddington. Teach us that and two more stunts, and it will be $300.”
Once in their dressing room, Piddington turned to the Anthony’s. “Ensure you have at least ten people present. If it is a Christmas party, that should be no problem. When you and your son walk into the room, you will both number the same people from one to ten in your mind. Those people will retain their number in your mind no matter where they may later move. Understood?”
Anthony nodded; Thomas just smirked.
“Now, Thomas will be escorted out of the room. Ensure that he cannot see or hear anything and that your audience knows that. It is critical for the effect.”
Again Anthony nodded and Thomas smirked.
“Before you perform, you and Thomas agree that the first number will be in the 20’s and the second in the 30’s. Now with Thomas out of sight, you ask the people to suggest digits which you write on the slate, until you see you have enough to total somewhere in the 20’s. At that point, you add up the column, say it is 26, then you wrap the slate in a cloth and hand it to the person you and Thomas have numbered 6 when you first entered the room. That person may be anywhere in the room, but you find him and ask him to hold the slate securely.”
“You then are escorted out and Thomas is brought in. As soon as he is in the room, he will see the person numbered 6 holding the slate and will know the total is 26. He then, as Kyame did, present the number in a manner that suggests he is reading your mind. Then you do it again and since Thomas knows the total will be in the 30’s, he again knows the total as soon as he opens his eyes.
“That is the routine. Understand? You saw the reaction of the men out there. That has been the reaction at newspaper offices wherever Kyame and I have done it.”
Anthony stood quietly and then a smile slowly appeared across his face. He nodded. “Understood.” He nodded again. “Is everything you do that simple?”
“No, Mr. Anthony, not at all,” said Kyame.
Anthony counted out five gold certificates. “Two more like that stunt will make for a most satisfactory Christmas interlude.”
“Father, that stunt is hardly worth $5, let alone $100. It won’t fool anyone.”
“It fooled you a few minutes ago, Thomas,” said Kyame. “You will baffle your family and guests … and then later when they are asking how you could have done such wonders, I predict that in your arrogance you will tell them … and they will laugh at you for trying to fool them with such simple methods. They will not be impressed … they will laugh.
“But they would not laugh at this!” At which Kyame whirled, turning her back, and walked away to the far wall.
“I will project to Kyame the serial number of whichever bill you select, Mr. Anthony, a bill that neither Kyame nor I have ever seen before.”
With Kyame’s back to them, Piddington looked at the bill chosen by Anthony, a $20 gold certificate. He remained silent as Thomas walked up to Kyame. “Another one of your cheap tricks, girl?” he snarled.
Ignoring the boy, Kyame slowly and correctly revealed the serial number of the bill. Papa had signed all five of the serial numbers to her as Anthony had counted out the bills on Papa’s hand. Then at Papa’s timed cough Kyame knew which one of bills had been selected by Anthony. Five numbers was near her limit for quick memorization.
Kyame turned toward Thomas as he walked toward his father. She smiled sweetly, “Not everything in life is method, Thomas. Sometimes you simply must believe … as in the meaning of Christmas.”
She glowed at Papa’s tight right fist.
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