The Magic Shop
Author:Justin Swapp

The Magic Shop - By Justin Swapp

Issues


For Marcus Fith, school was always a disaster. He didn’t need any hocus-pocus or a crystal ball to know that. Of course, if he spoke his mind like he was prone to do, he couldn’t word it that way. He wasn’t allowed to make fun of magic.

An excitable murmur filled the dry Nevada air as another group of twelve-year-olds shuffled into the cramped classroom at Exodus Middle School. As the other kids accompanied their parents to their seats, Marcus flopped down reluctantly next to his sister, Ellie, at their assigned cluster and sighed loudly, ready for this day to be over.

Slouching over his desk, Marcus pulled out his cell phone and started thumbing a message while Ellie buried her nose in a new novel, oblivious to the commotion in the room; that is, until her phone vibrated twice in the bag on her lap. She scowled over the book’s spine.

“What?” she asked. “You know I’m sitting next to you, right?”

“How do you even know that was me?”

“Because you’re the only one that ever texts my cell.”

Given that Ellie wouldn’t play along on the phone, Marcus got bored quickly. He watched the other kids lead their parents to their designated seats, an activity he had hoped to avoid focusing on. But now he couldn’t help but try and guess what they were feeling, or what they were thinking. He didn’t want to care.

The parents’ expressions ranged from happy, to awkward, to put-out. Admittedly, the strangest faces surfaced when the adults tried to sit down. The adults definitely looked uncomfortable, probably because they didn’t fit in the seats, but perhaps because the parents never knew what to expect from these kind of meetings either.

Suffice it to say that Marcus didn’t like parents-at-school activities. At least this would be the last activity this year. His anxiety wasn’t because of his grades. Marcus’s grades weren’t horrendous by any means, and Ellie’s marks just so happened to be excellent. No, these activities were the worst because of the parents.

A greying, beefy man appeared behind Marcus and squinted at the two empty desks opposite Marcus and Ellie. “Marcus,” the man finally said slowly with a whiny voice that fell short of his stature. He removed a pen and notepad from behind the old-fashioned plastic protector of his shirt pocket and examined a checklist. Marcus was busy sending another text message with his cell phone. “You told your grandparents about the year-end Review tonight, didn’t you?”

“Huh?” Marcus asked, tilting his head in the man’s direction without actually breaking eye contact with his cell phone. Ellie, her face still buried in her book, kicked Marcus under the table. “Uh, yeah, Mr. Diddley,” Marcus said mechanically. “I’m sure they will be here soon. They are probably just closing up the shop.” That last word hung in the air and left the room a little quieter.

“Good. As you know all too well, I have a number of things I’d like to address with them.” Mr. Diddley’s eyes fell on Marcus’s phone. Marcus had now moved on to the latest and greatest downloads that his friends had recommended to him.

Mr. Diddley hawked over Marcus’s shoulder, raised his eyebrows, and then shook his head before moving on to the next family without another word.

“You should be more careful, Marcus,” Ellie said, putting her book face down on the desk. “You know how Mr. Diddley gets when you don’t pay attention to him.”

“I did pay attention to him,” Marcus said. “Besides, he didn’t do any—”

Before he could finish, something darted out over Marcus’s shoulder and snatched his phone right out of his hands like a striking snake.

“What the—” Marcus said as he shot up out of his chair and spun around, fists clenched. It wasn’t unheard of for one of the other boys to try to pick on him about his family situation or the shop. He wasn’t sure what had happened, but he was sure of one thing—he wouldn’t let someone steal his phone.

Marcus saw the infuriating sight of Mr. Diddley strutting away, cell phone wagging in his hand. He set it on his desk with a single mocking pat before sitting in his desk chair, an old recliner that he had brought from home.

Still on his feet, knuckles white, Marcus oozed resentment. He glared at Mr. Diddley’s repulsive, yellow-toothed smile, and thought how he’d like to shove a toothbrush in his mouth and show him how to use it.

“Sit down,” Ellie hissed as she tugged on his arm. “I’m sure he’ll give it back after our meeting.”

Reluctantly, Marcus turned around and plopped back down on his chair, slapping his hand on the desk. Mr. Diddley seemed not to notice, as he had moved on to fiddling with a screen projector at the front of the classroom.

“Psst,” a short, blond girl said from a nearby group of desks. She leaned over and jerked her Barbie-doll-looking head at the empty desks in front of Marcus and Ellie. “Run out of family to bring to these things?” She winked at the folks she was sitting with and snorted a laugh.

“Shut it, Elizabeth,” whispered Marcus, and then he glanced over at the folks across from her. “Your ‘good looks’ must have scared my family away.” Elizabeth Straton was the most popular girl in school, and Marcus knew that she couldn’t stand to be put in a negative light.

It was only seconds before Elizabeth was on her feet. “When I’m done with you, meathead orphan, you’ll wish you had my family’s looks.” Elizabeth extended her arms, her cat-like claws at the ready.

Elizabeth’s parents whirled around at the commotion. “What’s wrong, dear?” her father asked, alarmed. Marcus sized him up. He seemed athletic and looked like he might even be tall.

Marcus started to leave his seat anyway.

“That’ll be enough, Marcus,” a gentle voice said. An older, portly gentleman had just walked through the classroom door in dress jeans and a sports coat. His green eyes fixed on Elizabeth’s father. Marcus didn’t even have to turn and look before he sat down at his desk again and humbly apologized to Elizabeth Straton.

“Very good,” said the man as he carefully took his seat across from Marcus. A pleasant-looking woman of approximately the same age accompanied him, wearing a flowing dress accented by a lot of earthy jewelry. She sat next to him.

“There’s no issue here,” the green-eyed man said to Elizabeth’s father. Something about his words or his eyes seemed to have a calming effect on him, and he settled back into his chair slowly.

“Grandma and Grandpa,” Ellie said, looking up from her book. “Glad you could finally make it.” She smiled broadly.

“Sorry we’re late, dear, but we had to balance the till at the shop, you know,” their grandma, Charlotte, said.

“Then it shouldn’t have taken that long,” Marcus said softly. His grandpa’s eyes narrowed as Marcus pointed at Mr. Diddley and said, “Grandpa, my teacher took my cell phone.”

“Were you using it?” his grandpa asked.

“Well, yes, but—”

“Were you supposed to be using it?” his grandpa asked.

“Technically, no, but—”

“Then why are you complaining? You should have seen that coming.” He winked.

“Precisely” Mr. Diddley said, his whiny voice still grating even from some distance behind them. “Thanks for your support,” he added. Apparently eavesdropping wasn’t against his scruples.

“Now that we’re all here, we’ll commence with the year-end Review,” Mr. Diddley said. “But before we begin, I wanted to turn some time over to Elizabeth Straton. She informed me several days ago that there was a tie for top points earned in the class this year. The little over-achiever approached me with a fun idea to earn some extra credit. She and a few others from Exodus’ own newspaper committee have since reviewed the activity archive for the year and put together a collection of pictures and anecdotes as a primer for our meeting tonight, and as a farewell to the school year.” Elizabeth gave Marcus a great smile. “I’ll turn the time over to Elizabeth Straton, after which we will meet for parent-teacher reviews, then issue your final grades to you and your parents,” he paused to look down on Marcus’s and Ellie’s grandparents, “or guardians.”

“And now, without further ado,” said Mr. Diddley. “Miss Straton.”

After a quick bow, Mr. Diddley positioned himself next to the light switch and awaited his cue. Elizabeth walked to the front of the class, picking up the projector remote en route, and nodded to Mr. Diddley. The room went dark, revealing a projected picture of a shiny cartoon trophy with embossed block letters that read The X Awards.

Elizabeth cleared her throat. The class rustled, and a few kids giggled with anticipation. “You’ll remember that a few weeks ago I sent each of you a short survey to fill out. Based on your votes, we have put together the following information for you.” She pressed a button on the projector remote.

The screen blinked and a picture of a beefy boy stuffing his face appeared on the wall. He was shamelessly cramming enough hamburgers into his mouth to send a whole herd stampeding in fear. The camera had caught his eyes wide with surprise, and the children laughed. Marcus thought it looked more like he was choking.

“To Greg Gorgio goes the Most Likely to Abuse Free Samples award,” Elizabeth said with a shaky voice, trying to keep her composure. In the back of the room Marcus saw Greg bury his face in his mother’s arms.

“Mr. Diddley!” Mrs. Gorgio started.

“My apologies. You can be sure there are no more slides of that nature,” Mr. Diddley said as his face crumpled up. “Miss Straton, I really don’t think that—”

Elizabeth quickly clicked the button and the screen winked again. The projector revealed a picture of a girl wearing thick glasses with #2 pencils tucked snugly behind both ears. Just under her thick sweatband, the girl’s eyes were intent on a piece of paper she was writing on. Her tongue was sticking out.

“To Bertie Braxton goes the Mathlete award for being the fastest student to complete timed math tests.” When she heard her name, Bertie raised one of the pencils she always kept behind her ears and then quickly replaced it.

“See,” Mr. Diddley said with a sigh, “that one was much better.”

Elizabeth clicked the remote a little harder this time as the energy in the room increased. The next sequence of slides seemed a blur to Marcus: The bargain catch; Most likely to end up in jail, Most likely to win the lottery but lose the ticket, Most likely to become a nun, and many others. The group laughed at each others’ expense, and the parents began to complain more and more.

Finally, Elizabeth arrived at a blank slide—a placeholder—and the students seemed relieved.

“Now, this last slide might be the most important,” she said enthusiastically. “In my opinion it is.” Marcus rolled his eyes. He couldn’t wait to see this. “Remember, the class has voted on each of the categories without any influence by me or the newspaper committee.”

Except for the sound of shuffling feet, a hush fell over the students.

“And now I give you,” she paused a moment for dramatic effect, “The Most Likely to End Up a Supermodel award. The picture to her left wasn’t like the others at all. It wasn’t an impromptu picture. It wasn’t taken in the wild while some unsuspecting student did some embarrassing thing. No, this picture was a studio picture of Elizabeth Straton posing for the camera, and the real counterpart stood next to it smiling an identical smile and standing in an identically posed position—one hand on a hip, the other doing the princess wave.

“Cheater,” Marcus said, shaking his head. Elizabeth stopped smiling as the students reacted.

Ellie punched his arm. “Don’t get yourself in trouble,” she whispered.

“This thing was rigged,” called out a girl from the back of the room. “You’re no model.”

“She should win the Most likely to have her makeup tattooed on award, said a boy by the entrance. Marcus laughed loudly, and Mr. Diddley shimmied out of his chair and turned on the lights.

“Enough,” said Mr. Diddley.

“Or Most likely to work in the cafeteria,” Marcus commented.

“At least my family can pay the bills,” Elizabeth said, the tears in her eyes sparkled from the projector’s light. “You have to hope that your Magic Shop can make money appear out of thin air.” Then she ran out of the room and her father went after her.

“That’s enough from all of you.” Mr. Diddley said, finally getting out of his recliner and pointing directly at Marcus.

“Johnny, the lights please,” Mr. Diddley said with a deep breath, turning to a frail-looking boy by the wall.

After the lights came on, Mr. Diddley continued. “Now then, why don’t we all take a minute to prepare for our year-end evaluations while I go look for Elizabeth. Please give your attention to the student aids as they explain the process.”

Johnny turned off the projector as he approached the front of the room. “The main reason you are here tonight is to review your performance this year with your parents. We’ve organized you into clusters to allow for privacy, but to still make it relatively easy to process each group. To get through tonight in a timely manner, Mr. Diddley asked his student aids to help him review the summary evaluation form he prepared for each of you. My name is Johnny, and,” he pointed at a few other older-looking kids in the room, “this is Candice and Robert.” They each raised a hand in turn. “We will be reviewing Mr. Diddley’s observations with you. Let’s get started.”

Candice and Robert got up and collected a pile of papers from Mr. Diddley’s desk and divvied them.

Robert read the name from his first summary. “Smith?” He looked around the room and saw hands go up at one of the clusters. He nodded, making his way to them and sitting down to discuss the student’s evaluation.

“Fith?” called Candice, looking up from her pile. Marcus and Ellie both raised their hands. Marcus was eager to leave the school, but not interested in their next appointment. Surprised, he raised an eyebrow at Ellie and smiled. No Mr. Diddley.

At hearing the name “Fith,” Johnny peeked over Candice’s shoulder. Then he reached around her and pointed at an annotation on the paper. They had a whispered conversation, and finally Candice replaced the paper on Mr. Diddley’s desk and called out “Christensen?”

Marcus raised his hand. “Johnny?”

“Ha-ha, Marcus,” said Johnny slowly, “We all know you aren’t a Christensen.”

“That’s not what I meant, Johnny,” Marcus said, now wondering if Johnny was a complete idiot. “Why did you call our name and then put the paper back down?”

“Oh,” said Johnny with a wide grin, “because Mr. Diddley wanted to conduct your parent-teacher conference personally.”

Marcus looked at Ellie. “Great,” he said.

Marcus’s grandpa, Winston, put his hand on Marcus’s shoulder. “What’s wrong, young man?”

“Nothing,” Marcus said. He sighed, wondering how embarrassing Mr. Diddley would make their meeting.

Mr. Diddley returned, patting Elizabeth on the back who now looked as if nothing had happened. Marcus noticed that her makeup wasn’t even smeared and had to wonder if, in fact, she wore tattooed makeup.

Elizabeth joined her cluster and her father, and Mr. Diddley returned to his desk where the stack of papers awaited him. He shuffled through the forms as if searching for something specific, something important. Then he decided on one paper and he picked it up, scanning it intently before looking at Marcus.

“Crap, he is coming,” Marcus said.

“I’m not surprised.” Ellie flipped another page in her book. “You know how he is.”

Mr. Diddley approached Marcus and his family, then sat at the last empty desk available in the cluster and scooted his chair in as far as his bulky frame would allow. “Okay then,” he sighed, and shifted toward Ellie, “let’s begin with the easiest affair.” Ellie buried a frayed bookmark in the spine and closed her novel.

“I’m sure you know Ellie is one of the top students at Exodus Middle School.” Mr. Diddley looked down at her summary and scanned his notes, and then he chuckled. “She loves to read, I guess you could say,” he paused, “and read, and read. Our only concern for her is that she is a bit of a social caterpillar.”

Grandma and Grandpa Fith looked confused. “Sorry?” Charlotte said. “Social caterpillar?”

“Yes, sorry, that is to say, not yet a social butterfly.” He grinned broadly, assuming that would clarify things sufficiently. He was met with blank stares.

“She must pull her face out from behind her books and engage with people more, Mr. and Mrs. Fith. She needs to vary her activities and make friends. That said, there are many worse things she could be dealing with. She is a fine student. Just help her come out of her shell a bit.”

“Thank you,” their grandpa said. “We’ll give that some thought.”

“Now,” he said, turning to Marcus. “We have the matter of this gentleman here.”

“His name is Marcus,” Charlotte said. “I’m sure it’s on the paper there somewhere.”

Mr. Diddley let out a hearty guffaw and winked at their grandma. “This one has a sense of humor.”

“Marcus,” Mr. Diddley said, scratching his head, “if I recall from our last meeting, you were going to address your behavior issues. To be honest, I’m concerned about the lack of progress.” He addressed Marcus’s grandparents: “he still struggles concentrating in class and maintaining discipline in general. While his grades meet the minimum standards, it’s by a narrow margin. If he were to turn in his assignments on time, and actually complete them, he would have much higher scores. When he actually shows up to class he seems overly reliant on devices for entertainment.”

“Speaking of which,” interjected Marcus, “may I have my cell phone back please?”

“That’s up to your par—” Mr. Diddley corrected himself. “Grandparents.”

“I’ll take it,” Winston said, extending his hand, “and we’ll discuss the consequences of his behavior on his summer vacation.”

“But Gramps—” Marcus started.

“Later, Marcus,” his grandpa said.

“Good.” Mr. Diddley returned the phone. “Ellie is a great kid, and a wonderful student. She shouldn’t be hard to work with. She just needs a little social coaching, that’s all. Marcus, on the other hand, is quite social, albeit overly reliant on his gadgets, but he needs greater focus and discipline in order to stay productive and to complete his assignments.”

“Thank you for your candor, Mr. Diddley,” Charlotte said. “We will discuss this as a family and come up with a way to remedy the situation.”

“I hope so,” said Mr. Diddley, clapping a hand to each of his legs and pushing off. “I’ve got to meet with the other families now. I look forward to seeing the results of real progress next year.”

The Fiths stood up and each shook Mr. Diddley’s hand before he waddled off to meet with the next family.

Their grandpa sighed heavily and said: “Now children, I know this makes for a long night, but we need to visit theNevada State Hospital tonight.”

Charlotte smiled and put her arms around her husband. “Thanks for remembering, Winston.”

Ellie scowled at Marcus, but he didn’t make eye contact with her. Marcus looked at the ground, cursing under his breath. He had hoped they had forgotten.

“Come on, kids,” their grandpa said, pointing toward the exit. “You can cool off on the way.” He clapped his free hand on their backs one-by-one as they passed.

They navigated their way out of the classroom and through the school, then out into the parking lot where their old station wagon awaited them. Marcus was glad he wouldn’t see the school or his classmates again for a few months. He needed the time away.

Marcus sat in the back seat of the station wagon and slammed the door shut. No one said anything, but Marcus caught the disapproving look that his grandfather gave him in the rearview mirror as he started the car. It wasn’t uncommon for him or Ellie to act out a little whenever they started their drive to the Nevada State Hospital. It was usually Marcus, though. His grandpa’s look shut it down before it started.

The one thing that Marcus hated even more than parent-teacher meetings were their visits to Nevada State Hospital. No matter what they said, they couldn’t talk their grandparents out of it.

Their grandma and grandpa were pretty fair, and they could usually be negotiated with. Household chores like the dishes, or the trash, or even when homework had to be completed could be haggled, but for some reason this was different. They could even fake sick and their grandparents would not let them stay behind, so this time Marcus didn’t even try.

“Don’t work yourself up, Marcus,” Ellie whispered, “It only makes it worse. Maybe catch a nap on the way.”

“No sleep for you,” their grandma said, clicking her tongue. “We need to discuss how you’ll change your behavior. At this point, it’s a bit much.”

Marcus shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“Then I suggest you take the car ride and think about it,” their grandpa said. “This won’t go away until you fix it.”

“Maybe Caleb and Anabell can give you some suggestions,” Ellie said.

“Very funny,” Marcus said, looking out the window. “From what I’ve seen, Caleb and Anabell can’t do much of anything. May I have my phone back please?”

His grandpa hesitated a moment, then reached into his shirt pocket and removed the phone. “Think about it,” he said, and then handed the phone over.

Marcus reached into his pant’s pocket, pulled out his ear buds, and plugged them into his phone. With a couple of thumb flicks he was listening to his favorite background music. He leaned his head against the car window and closed his eyes, trying to think of anything but the hospital.