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Forcing Coin
    by William T. Vandemark

Forcing Coin
Artwork by Nick Greenwood

The town diner gleamed in the twilight. Above the entrance, a neon WELCOME sign pulsed on and off, the hum and buzz staccato.

Lenny stood mesmerized. "Bees and fireflies," he whispered. In the chill October air, his breath wafted like a ghost. A moment later, a gust of wind snatched it away.

With a shrug, Lenny repositioned his backpack and surveyed the town's crossroads. Neither headlights nor tail lights shimmered in the distance; neither gods nor demons tolled the ways. In solitude, he decided to stop. A cup of coffee and a bite to eat sounded good, company even better.

He strode to the diner's entrance, and paused beneath an awning. At the glass door, he used his reflection to fix his hair and adjust his collar. He rolled up his frayed shirt cuffs, plucked nettles from his jeans, and realized he had no socks. He wiggled his big toe, teasing a hole in his canvas sneakers. None the worry, he decided. Feet need to breathe.

He reached for the doorknob and stopped.

His cheek twitched, his eye winked, he coughed a guttural bark, the sound capped with pips and a squeak. A carrion stench filled his nose, and hairs rose on the nape of his neck.

An hour of company, Lenny silently pleaded. Was it too much to ask?

Pain pierced his right side and in spasm he bit the inside of his cheek.

At the taste of blood, he reached into his pocket and sorted through coins. By touch, he found the one he wanted. It was ancient, large as a silver dollar, but colder, heavier, and had a jagged hole in its center. He circled his finger around its edge until his fingertip went numb, then he touched the wound inside his mouth. After a three count, he withdrew his finger and spat into his hand. His spit ran clear.

He wiped his mouth, tucked in his shirt, and entered the diner. "Greetings good people," he said. "Beautiful night, beautiful sight, I'm Lenny, The Amazing Lenny. And it all changes now."

Silence.

At a Formica counter, a bucket and mop stood sentry. A row of stools, trimmed in chrome, ran the length of the diner. Opposite, red Naugahyde booths sat empty.

"Hello?" Lenny called. On the counter, a bell rested -- tiny, shiny, appealing. Lenny wanted to ring the bell, ding the bell, peal the bell. He sidestepped the bucket.

Past the counter, a waitress appeared from a doorway. Flour dusted her honeycomb curls and kissed the tip of her nose.

A belle!

"Sorry," she said. "Kitchen's closed." She wiped her hands on her apron. "Slow night. Cook's already out the door." Her nametag read Nettie.

"Might I have a Joe? Some Java? A spot of tea, hold the tea, pour the coffee?"

Nettie angled her head -- an assessment, head to toe. "It's been sitting a while."

"That's okay, I've been walking awhile. Sitting sounds good."

"Suit yourself."

Lenny heaved his backpack from his shoulders and set it on the floor. The pack toppled and books spilled forth.

"Quite the library," Nettie said.

Books were Lenny's treasure, but admission felt as risky as performing a new trick. "I find them," he said. "Serendipity, I think." He gathered the strays and propped his pack against the base of the counter.

"Where you headed?" Nettie asked.

Lenny sat. "Away. Always away."

"Sounds tiring."

Indeed, Lenny thought.

Nettie said, "How about a piece of pie to go with your coffee? No cook needed."

"That'd be lovely."

"Right then. Nasty coffee and lovely pie it is." Nettie smiled.

Lenny's breath caught. He'd long since grown used to the furtive whispers, sidelong glances, and outright catcalls his ticks, fits, and fancies invoked. But here, now, she had taken him in with her smile, a simple yet perfect kindness. His face warmed.

Nettie poured him a cup of coffee and rattled off a selection of pies. "They're all good. Make them myself, most everyday." As if to illustrate the point, she brushed flour from her apron. "What'll it be?"

Lenny rubbed his chin. For dramatic effect, he looked up, as if searching for divine guidance. On the ceiling, water stains eddied, faint patterns from a once leaky roof. Curls of peeling paint beckoned.

Lenny gritted his teeth. Molars creaked as he shifted his jaw. What had they been talking about? The room spun round and around.

Round. She'd asked about pie. Lenny gripped the counter. "Have you any that are whole?" he asked.

"You'd like a whole pie?"

"No, no. Just a piece. But I prefer the first slice. The very first slice. Call it a peccadillo. An armadillo. The cask of amontillado." He winked. Twitched. Ticked.

Nettie narrowed her eyes. "Apple then. Fresh from the oven."

Lenny grasped his coffee cup with both hands, hoping to hide his tremors. He sipped the brew, burnt and acrid. "Delicious," he said. "And pipe, pipe, piping hot. Perchance some cream is available?"

Nettie fished a packet from her apron and set it on the counter. "Already emptied the pitchers. Powdered creamer is the best I can do."

"Ah, packaged artifice," Lenny said with a wink. "Who doesn't like a little mystery?"

Nettie was already headed off to the kitchen. As she passed through the doorway, she called back. "I can think of times where I could use a little less."

Lenny nodded to himself. Some mysteries bound souls to eternity.

He tore the packet and emptied the powder into his coffee -- an island of white into a sea of black. He picked up a spoon and prodded the floating clump. "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds."

The island bobbed. Slowly, its shoreline dissolved and Atlantis fell into the sea. Lemuria . . . Mu . . . Lyonesse . . . all lost. How much knowledge lay hidden beneath surfaces?

Lenny stirred the creamer. The coffee spun white, the creamer spun black.

Fractals, fractals, everywhere, nor any drink to drop.

Lenny stood. His right eye looked off on its own and his left blinked to the twitch of his cheek. Aware of his body's betrayal, controlling none of it, Lenny wailed in silence.

In pace requiescat, came a whisper. Rest in peace.

At his feet, a shadow waited. Lenny slipped into the dark.

He awoke to Nettie kneeling at his side, haloed by a water stain high above. "You all right?" she asked. Her face came into focus.

"Sometimes." Lenny smiled weakly.

"Stay still. I'll call for help."

"No, I'm fine. Just a little fire from the gods." He rolled over and pushed himself to his feet. He dusted himself off, clapped his hands once, and showed his palms to Nettie. "See? Right as rain."

"You sure?"

"I'm sure. Really, truly, madly. Even better after I've had a bite to eat." He returned to the counter where a pie, golden brown, waited.

Nettie made her way to the other side. "Fire from the gods," she said. "Meaning epilepsy?"

"That'd be a clinical assessment."

"My aunt, she suffered from seizures. Positively hated it when people made a fuss."

"A wise woman."

"And a great cook. Taught me everything I know. See if you agree." She sliced into the pie twice, slipped the knife under the wedge, and slid a generous portion onto a plate. She set the knife on the pie tin and handed Lenny a fork.

Lenny took a bite. The crust was flaky and buttery, the apples, tart and sweet. Yin yang. He rolled his tongue about the filling. "Oh my," he managed.

"I'll take that as a compliment."

Lenny nodded vigorously, savoring the taste. Warmth washed through him, and tension slipped from his shoulders. He ate methodically, but without pause. When he finished, he set his fork aside, pressed his thumb onto the last of the crumbs, and with a grin, delivered them to his mouth.

Nettie, who was wiping down the counters, looked up. "That do the trick?"

The trick? The question pinned Lenny and his vision dimmed.

The trick, the tick, the tock . . . Hickory, Dickory, Dock.

To stay the sudden swirl of whispers, he bit his tongue hard. The pain cut through wisps and curls, knicks and knacks, the flotsam and jetsam of patterns that were tugging, tugging, always tugging. And in that moment, he remembered: the greater the pain, the greater the measure of peace. "The trick," he said, "Yes. Yes, it did. How about I return the favor?"

He fished his ancient coin from his pocket and set it on the counter. He clapped his hands once and displayed his palms to Nettie. "Before the crucifixion of Jesus," he said, "there was Horus, Quexalcote, Prometheus, and more." He tugged a paper napkin from a dispenser, wrapped it around his hand, and tucked in the ends. Palm up, he rested the back of hand on the coin. With his free hand, he snatched the knife from the pie tin.

Nettie took a step back.

"But Odin," Lenny continued, "Odin was crucified by his own javelin." He raised the knife and gave Nettie a wink. Twitch. Tic.

She looked at the knife, looked at Lenny. Her eyes widened.

Released, Lenny drove the knife though the air, through the napkin, and through his hand. His fork jumped, his plate clattered, and his coffee cup rattled on its saucer.

With a flash of white, the room canted, and Lenny felt as if he were about to pass out. But with his next breath, exquisite pain rose up and washed through him. It ablated all the hard edges of the world, until at last, he floated free.

For the first time in years, he dared hope the night might grant him an uncontested sleep. He opened his eyes. The diner glowed softly, and a golden aura hung about Nettie.

"You need to leave," she said. Her words came from a distance.

Lenny smiled.

"I mean it." Her aura shifted. It thinned into cold white motes that fell from the air like clumps of flour. She held a phone, her thumb resting on the buttons.

Lenny wondered how long he'd been in the Elsewhere. He nodded at his pinned hand. "Will you set me free?"

Nettie glanced at the knife. "Not a chance."

"Magicians need assistants."

"And you need to leave. I'm not kidding."

Take me up. Cast me away.

Lenny sighed. He took hold of the knife, inhaled, and wrenched it free. He swallowed hard, fighting a rush of nausea. "It's okay," he said. He set the knife on the counter. "I've been blessed."

Cursed.

"Please," Nettie's voice trembled, "Just go."

"But that wasn't the trick. This is." He raised his hand, snapped the napkin free, and made a tossing motion. Using the misdirection, he dropped the crumpled paper onto his lap. But to Nettie, her view blocked by the counter, the napkin had simply vanished.

Lenny clenched his maimed hand and opened it. No blood, just a wound. He repeated the gesture. No wound, just a scar. And again. No scar, just a memory.

Nettie blinked. "Well heck. That's pretty good."

"I can do it again if you like." Lenny plucked the coin from the counter.

Nettie's smile disappeared -- no misdirection. "No. I've got to get home. Your order's on the house."

Everything has a price.

"I pay my debts," Lenny said.

"Really, no charge."

"I insist."

Nettie shrugged. She pulled a pen and pad from her apron and scribbled. She tore the slip loose and offered it to Lenny. As she stepped towards him, he reached out. His fingers grazed her ear.

"Slow-coach," he said. He palmed his coin and pretended to pull a silver dollar from her ear. He rubbed the dollar between thumb and finger, duplicated it, clinked the two together, and set four on the counter. "I appreciate your hospitality."

Hospitality -- an old word, an ancient charge.

In dappled moonlight, Lenny sat on a park bench, his backpack alongside. On top lay his favorite book, Forcing Coin and other Legerdemain, by The Fabulous Farnsworth. It had warped boards and a bleached, tattered cover, but to Lenny the book was priceless. Nonetheless, he'd decided to give it to Nettie; he'd share the secret of the Coin from Ear trick without breaking the Magician's Code -- a gift of knowledge.

After a time, the diner's lights went out. A moment later, Nettie stood in the doorway, her figure sylvan in the moonlight. Lenny held his breath. If Nettie's path home carried her away, he'd not antagonize the Fates by following.

Instead, she turned in his direction.

As she approached, Lenny rolled his coin back and forth along his knuckles. Sidelong, he watched her hesitate as she caught sight of him. He winced at her fear.

"Hello again," she said, angling away, passing him by.

"Beautiful night," he said. And suddenly, as if he'd uttered an invocation, autumn leaves, which had been scrabbling about the pavement, fell into the restfulness of the dead.

Nettie stopped. "I was wondering -- back at the diner, that wasn't a trick, was it?"

Lenny shrugged.

Nettie drew closer. She rested her hand on the corner of the bench. "If I ask you how you did it, will you tell me?"

"Ask."

She laughed. "What if I don't?"

"You'll wonder about it the rest of your life."

"Did it hurt?"

Lenny's cheek twitched. He tasted bitterness. He wanted to laugh at her question and the razor's edge it skirted. But if he started down that path, he'd not come back.

"Have you ever felt trapped?" he asked.

She glanced up and down the street. "I don't know. Sometimes, I guess."

Lenny displayed his coin. "In the desert, I pried this from a dead man's grasp. He opened his eyes and thanked me." The coin grew heavy. "Would you like to understand?"

Nettie shifted her weight. She drew her fingertip along the bench rail, tracing its path.

In the distance, a dog barked.

"I think I'll pass," she said.

Pass? How could she pass? He held an adamantine coin forged from a chain that had bound Prometheus. Secrets from time eternal lay within her reach. "You don't want to know?"

She shrugged. "Well, I do. I truly do. But like you said, who doesn't like a little mystery in their life?" She stepped backward.

Lenny wanted to reach out and catch her by the wrist. They didn't have to talk about magic. They could talk about the weather. Exchange recipes. He could recite lost poetics or regale her with impossibly true stories. She could ask him anything, anything at all. Or they could just sit in the quiet.

And maybe he could hold her hand.

Silently, she turned and walked away. A block later, she glanced back. She raised her hand waist-high, and gave a small wave. Then she rounded the corner and slipped from the evening's loom.

A cloud passed the moon. It pulled silks of light from the sleeve of night.

Leaves swirled in the street. They swept over the curb and danced about the bench. A single leaf spun free and landed against Lenny's bare ankle. It tick, tick, tickled. Time to go. Time to go.

"Yes," Lenny said, "Time to go."

He stood, brushed himself off, and the leaves scattered.

At the park bench, he shouldered his backpack. At the diner, he propped a book against the door.

At the crossroads, he clapped his hands once and displayed his palms to the moon, the daily rent of his soul -- life itself.

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