Starspire

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Chapter 3: Without a Paddle or a Boat

Africa

The cloudless sky glowed green as a shooting star shot across the sky, beginning around Orion’s Bow and rocketing off into the distance. Bahati Okoye sat on her favorite log and gazed into the heavens. The beads in her tightly-braided hair clinked as she snapped her head up to follow the trajectory.

The entire earth shuddered, like a poor man shivering in a winter wind. The light left a green trail that remained visible a full minute after its passing.

Bahati did not rise, but a satisfied smile lifted her face. She lowered her gaze to the horizon point where the light had disappeared. “It is the sign, Dad,” she said to the circle of stones in front of her, marking her father’s final resting place. “The same one we saw eleven years ago. It is time for me to seek the stone, far across the sea.”

At last, Bahati picked up her gnarled wooden staff and bowed her head. “Here I start my journey.” She glanced up and stared again at the point in the distance where the light had disappeared, “Thousands of steps lie ahead, but I promise, my road shall lead me back to you.”

She lifted his staff, set her feet toward the horizon and took her first step.

The Atlantic Ocean

Bahati squinted at the horizon. At the edge of her vision, she could make out a blurry dark shape. She blinked and then blinked even harder. The image did not vanish.

“Could it be?”

She paused momentarily to consider the floating stones in front of her. They had been enchanted to keep track of how many steps she had taken from her starting point and had already counted thousands of steps. When she saw her father again, she wanted to be able to tell him how many steps her journey had taken.

Bahati let out her breath in a low whistle, grateful that her father had taught her a spell to strengthen the soles of her feet, or she would have collapsed many thousands of steps before. She couldn’t even say exactly how long she had been walking, only that it was for enough time for the seasons to change.

It was also fortunate that her father knew what it was to have cold feet. Literally. As she took another step, the water below her extended foot froze instantly into a solid platform. Step after step, her cold feet provided her a path across the otherwise impenetrable ocean.

She still wore her colorful ceremonial robes with scenes from ancient legends etched in black against the yellow and orange background. She had not been afforded a change of clothes while making her sea voyage, and magic could only do so much to keep off the filth and the stench. The sun beat down mercilessly most days, and she wished she had thought to bring along her ceremonial hat to cover her head. Magical means of blocking the sun also had their limits.

Many times, she had regretted her decision to walk the entire way. The ocean had always seemed to be such a short few inches of blue on the map. In reality, it was a mind-numbingly boring expanse of blue, interrupted only by the occasional school of fish or curious dolphin. She had almost welcomed it when a shark once mistook her for an afternoon snack. At least that had gotten her blood flowing.

She might have gone completely mad had she not had the memories of her father to keep her company. He must have replayed nearly her entire childhood in her head---all seventeen years.

But now land loomed in the distance, and she realized how much she hated eating fish and seeing nothing but vast watery vistas in every direction. She felt like jumping onto the coast and rolling in the dirt to savor the sensation.

The thought spurred her on. An enormous smile cracking over her sunbaked face, she lowered her head to the wind and rushed forward as fast as she could.

A few minutes later,Bahati’s toes embraced the soft, white sand of the beach. It seemed no other sensation had ever felt so nice, even though the sand was a little hot. She smiled to himself, wondering what the newspaper or the record books would say if they had witnessed her incredible journey: African Teenager Traverses Atlantic Ocean on Foot!

Take that, Magellan.

She sighed with pleasure as she dug her toes even deeper. No, they wouldn’t be naming libraries and museums after her any time soon, but that didn’t matter. Being famous was overrated.

Her hunger for land temporarily sated, she reached into the bag slung over her shoulder and withdrew a miniature wooden bird on a string. The sleek bird boasted emerald plumage, streaked with vivid blue and a slender beak like that of a hummingbird. Bahati held the bird high above her head, dangling it from the string so that it swung freely.

The bird swung back and forth for a few seconds, before coming to a complete stop. Then, slowly, the bird’s delicate wings flapped, beating harder and harder until it shot out in one direction, still flapping with all its might despite being tethered. At last, the string burst, and golden and green sparks flew into the air from the back of the bird. The bird flew off at top speed, leaving a glowing trail that only Bahati would be able to see.

Bahati nodded and started off the trail. It was much closer than expected. Two days, maybe three. After what she had endured, it felt like an incredible holiday. As she traced the glowing trail, she couldn’t help but lift her voice in song, a little folksong her father used to sing when he was happy, on, . How many people could say that they had literally crossed oceans for their family? It sounded like the beginning of a sappy song, but it was true.

Don’t worry, father. I’m almost there.

The night before Tyson’s birthday, Matt knocked on Tyson’s door. “Watching Quasar Quest again?”

“Nope. Come in,” he brother said.

Instead of watching the movie, Tyson was at his desk, doodling on an open sketchbook. “Hey,” he said. “What’s that? Looks like the cuckoo clock Uncle Klaus sent from Germany.”

Tyson shook his head and crumpled the sketch. “Yeah, but it’s not any good. I’m just trying not to think about tomorrow.”

“You should make a list of what you want to do,” said Matt. “Dad probably won’t let us stay very long. If you even sneeze funny, he’ll probably throw you over his shoulder and run.”

Tyson sighed and picked up another piece of paper. He handed it to Matt. “Already did that.”

Matt scanned the page.

-Eat a churro (I’ve only ever heard stories about them)

-Get a massive sugar high from cotton candy (at least three different colors)

-Dominate on the bumper cars

-Ride the Ferris wheel with dad

-Win at least three midway games (Not the lame ones where there’s a winner every time)

-Watch “The Greatest Magic Show in the World*

Matt raised an eyebrow at the final entry. “’The Greatest Magic Show in the World’? I didn’t know that was in town. Aren’t we lucky?”

Tyson shrugged. “With a name like that, it’s got to be good right?”

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Matt, tossing the list back on the table. “Try not to get your hopes up.”

“Yeah, I’ll try,” said Tyson. “That might be hard.” He turned to Matt. “Thanks again. I really didn’t Dad would say yes.”

Matt shrugged with one shoulder. “That’s what they’ll teach you next year in home school. First it’s ‘How to Argue With Your Parents and Win’ and then ‘Manipulation 101’. Can’t wait ’til I get to ‘Sneaking Out of the House for Dummies’.”

Tyson gave a short laugh. “Good to know.”

“You’re still on the hook for a month of my chores,” said Matt. “Don’t forget.”

Tyson threw up his hands. “Not until we get back from the carnival. I’m still not sure dad’s not going to change his mind last minute.”

Matt pointed to his own eyes with two fingers and then to Tyson. “He won’t. I promised I’d keep an eye on you…and pay for any damages. Don’t even think about breaking something.”

Nodding, Tyson plopped onto his bed. “Right. I’ll…I’ll try.”

“See you tomorrow, Ty.” Matt backed out of the room and shut the door.

Next to Matt, Tyson squirmed in his seat. “Go faster, dad. The lines aren’t getting any shorter.”

“Speed limits,” growled his father. “Lousy engine. If you want to help by changing this thing into a Porsche, be my guest.”

Tyson leaned forward. “But dad, you know I can’t control it.”

His dad grunted, and the rest of the ride continued on in silence.

The second they pulled into a parking space, Tyson bolted from the car and into the ticket line. The ink on their hands had scarcely dried when he made a beeline for the bumper cars. Matt shadowed his brother, knowing that his dad wasn’t joking about keeping both eyes on his brother.

After three rounds, no others dared challenge them to a fourth. Marking one item off the list, Tyson chased three different roving vendors, each with their own shade of cotton candy: green, blue, and reluctantly, boring old pink. He then turned to the churro vendor and took his time selecting the one with the greatest helping of cinnamon and sugar.

Matt felt himself relax. So far, so good. No catastrophes yet, and he had liked the way the girl selling the churros had smiled at him.

I’ve definitely got to get out more. If only that sneaking class was a real thing.

Knowing his dad, he had probably put GPS tracking in their sneakers or something in case they got too far from him. He had tried to slip out before, but it was like his dad had a sixth sense about stuff like that.

Matt then watched as Tyson tried his hand at the ring toss, the plate smash, and the basketball hoops with equal enthusiasm, and finally struck gold at toppling milk jugs with a baseball. Sensing that he’d finally found his element, he played again and again, and Matt joined in until they had won enough stuffed animals, enough to open up a minor zoo.

After cramming the animals in the trunk of their car, they all stood in line for the Ferris wheel. While stopped at the top, their dad leaned over to Tyson. “So, are you having a good birthday? You’ve almost checked everything off your list.”

“And nothing’s broken,” added Matt. “Except those plates you were supposed to break.”

Tyson nodded vigorously. “Great! I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun. Have you ever been to a magic show, dad? What sort of tricks do they do?”

He scratched his head. “They usually make things appear, and a few disappear, saw people in half…”

Tyson’s eyes widened, “Can they put them back together?”

Dad chuckled and put a hand on Tyson’s shoulder. “They don’t actually saw them in half. It’s an illusion.”

Tyson’s eyes grew abnormally wide.

“At least, most of the time. Sometimes, for the really bad kids…”

Dad shook his head as Tyson paled. “Just kidding. Don’t worry. You’re a good kid anyway.”

The wheel started to move again and Tyson looked out at the world in wonder. “Do magicians have to go to school? Maybe I could go there someday!”

With a chuckle, their dad gazed off into the distance. “I’m not sure. If you believe some of the books you read, there are some magic schools—we just can’t see them. You have to be invited or something.”

Tyson shrugged. “I’ll have to watch the mail. I guess I still have time.”

Matt rolled his eyes at his brother’s gullibility, wishing he had had the courage to ask churro girl for her number.

The ride ended and the three of them made their way toward the large, colorful tent, which housed the magic act. A larger-than-life banner touted the virtues of Markus Zauber, the spindly magician dressed in a black tux, oversized bow tie, and a top hat at least twice as tall as normal. He wore a brilliant smile, and was in the process of pulling a hamster out of a shoe. Tyson wrinkled his nose and squinted at the poster.

“Isn’t that supposed to be a rabbit? And a hat?”

“Usually,” Dad replied. “But then again, that trick’s been done a million times. Maybe he’s trying to be original.”

Matt rolled his eyes. “Or he’s just too cheap to buy a rabbit.”

Neil led them into the tent where they pushed through the crowds to land a seat on the third row near the middle. After several minutes of Tyson grilling his dad about magicians, the lights in the tent dimmed and an ominous music filled the stuffy space, which reeked of popcorn and people. A pair of fog machines blew thick mist across the stage, complementing the eerie music.

The music swelled and a pair of strobe lights flashed through the mist, revealing a solitary figure, which had materialized in the heart of the fog. Tyson gasped out loud and leaned forward, apparently intent on seeing how long he could go without blinking.

With a crack of thunder, the strobe lights faded, plunging the tent into darkness. An ominous voice crept through the darkness.

“Prepare to be amazed by the amazing Markus Zauber! Prepare to doubt your senses. Prepare to visit new worlds of imagination. Come with me, and I will take you to unimagined heights!”

A thin spotlight switched on over the magician, revealing the man they had seen on the advertisement. The magician moved his hands through the air, creating complex patterns that made Matt dizzy when he tried to follow them.

“Observe my sleeves,” boomed the magician. “Nothing in them, right?” His hands continued to weave. “But watch closely, and you’ll see that I do have a trick or two up there!”

At the height of his weaving pattern, the magician leapt into the air and snapped his arms down. His face broke into a broad grin, as if he had delivered the punch line to a clever joke. His smile slipped slightly, but he quickly caught it as he shook his sleeves over and over again. This time, a solitary ping-pong ball fell out and bounced across the stage. He swept it up and tried to bounce it off the back of his foot, but failed miserably and instead launched it out into the audience, eliciting a small laugh.

Tyson leaned over to his father. “I don’t understand. When does the real magic start?”

His father shrugged. “Give him a minute. Maybe he’s just getting warmed up.”

The magician’s act, however, did not improve with time. He tried unsuccessfully to conjure birds, to snatch coins from people’s ears, to fling colored scarves from various pockets and even to pull off a poorly-veiled trapdoor disappearing act.

Tyson stared with his jaw hanging open as he leaned over to his brother. “But I’ve read all about magic. Real wizards hover and fly, shoot fire, lightning, and wind from their hands, and summon animals.”

Matt shrugged. “Guess there’s only one way to find out. You tell him to do the bunny out of the hat trick?”

The suggestion was no sooner out of Matt’s mouth than Tyson cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled. “Pull a bunny out of your hat!”

The magician stopped in mid-gesture, his eyes widening. “Who said that?” he called.

Before his father could stop him, Tyson shot to his feet. “I did. I want to see the bunny trick. If you’re really a magician, you should know the bunny trick.”

Markus stood frozen for a few seconds, his smile like that of a department store mannequin. “The bunny trick?” he finally managed, beads of sweat breaking over his forehead. “Bunnies are wretched creatures, don’t you think? All that fluff and sharp teeth. Wouldn’t you rather see a nice hamster instead?”

With a practiced motion, the magician took the shoe from his left foot and plunged his hand in. He winced a moment later and, with a jerk of his hand, a hamster soared across the room and landed on the lap of one of the old ladies in the front row. The woman shrieked and flailed, sending the creature scurrying upward. In seconds, it disappeared into the lady’s voluminous puff of white hair.

After a few seconds of a complete meltdown from the woman, the magician whistled and the hamster sprung out of the woman’s hair and back onto the stage. “See!” bellowed the magician. “Much more exciting.”

Some of the audience left, some clapped politely, while others simply settled into their chairs. Tyson slumped down, looking as though someone had just burned his entire book collection.

As the act continued, one poorly-executed trick after another, Matt could feel himself drifting off. His father had already rested his chin on his hands, and he couldn’t help following suit.

Matt’s eyelids fell once, twice, and then went under for a third time, plunging him into sleep.

Bahati stood atop the hill overlooking the carnival, gawking at the bustle and confusion below. Her eyes traced the glowing line to the large center tent, and smiled. It had been an extremely long and arduous journey, but if this really proved to be her destination, it would be worth every step.

Squinting, she considered the vast assortment of people below. Many wore costumes and painted faces, and so it might be easier to blend in with the crowd than he had expected. He breathed out a sigh of blessed relief. The journey had taxed even her well-honed patience.

Taking only a second more to lean on her staff, she fixed her eyes on the tent and set off down the hill.

“Now, time for the main event.”

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