The sweet scents of buttered popcorn and cotton candy floated over a light breeze crossing the stage, causing Martin Yurik’s stomach to growl. He never thought the night would end and he was grateful to wrap up the third show of the evening. He peered out under the glaring stage lights and spoke into his headset microphone.
“Marilyn Monroe, everybody!”
To his left, a man lifted the bottom of the faded, stretched-out Van Halen t-shirt over his hairy, protruding belly and swayed from side to side on his flip-flops. “Oh,” he said in a gravel-churning voice, “do you feel the breeze from the subway?”
A gaggle of teenage girls in the front row covered their gaping mouths as tears of laughter poured forth.
“Isn’t it delicious?” the man asked his captive audience.
The crowd of one hundred or so hooted and hollered.
Martin stepped in front of the man and got in his face. “One, you’re slowly feeling all of your faculties returning under your control. Two, you’re beginning to move around, stretching your body, feeling the electrical signals flow through your nervous system. And three, you’re wide awake!”
He snapped his fingers just before finishing the last sentence. The man looked confused, like he’d just woken up in a stranger’s home.
“Let’s all give Billy a round of applause! He’s a real good sport!” He grabbed the middle-aged man’s hand and lifted it in the air. A look of recognition swept over Billy’s face as he took in his surroundings. His astonishment turned into a sheepish grin. Cheryl, Martin’s assistant, walked onto the stage wearing an inconspicuous black button-up top and black slacks and escorted Billy to the side.
Low, ambient music began to play in the background and Martin spoke. “If anyone here is trying to lose weight, quit smoking, drinking, or has any other habit they’re looking to break, we have some CDs and DVDs for sale at the booth near the exit.”
Even though he’d prepped and charmed at least half of the suggestible crowd into buying something from him before each show even started, he was always a little relieved to see them lining up.
“Thank you all for coming tonight! It’s been a pleasure! Don’t forget that we’re here until Friday.”
“I don’t know how you do it.”
“I know. That’s why you pay me,” Martin said, biting into the mustard-slathered corndog Cheryl left for him backstage.
“True, true. Look, I have a proposition for you.”
“I’m booked the rest of the summer, Vincent.”
Vincent Forcelli, President of the Board of Directors for the San Flamenco County Fair, peeked under the tent flap to look outside, then ducked his head back in. His gray eyes and slicked mafioso hair made him appear more intimidating than his soft voice let on, but those were usually the dangerous ones, right?
“No, it’s a personal job,” he said. “One day. That’s it. And I’m talking big money.”
Big money. Martin knew county fair circuit money, and while it provided a comfortable living, he wouldn’t be trading in the Volvo for a Tesla Model S anytime soon.
“What, do you want to lose weight? Just buy a CD.”
Vincent visibly sucked in his stomach and straightened up. “No, not for me. For someone else.”
“Okay, tell them to buy a CD.”
“It’s not your usual stuff,” Vincent said. “This one’s a little different. The person won’t know what you’re doing. Not entirely.”
Martin sat the corndog back down in the paper tray. At least once a year, he’d get some sort of request like this.
Can you make this guy fall in love with me?
My grandmother is being manipulated to leave me out of her will and I need you to change her mind.
Hey, convince my boss to give me a fifty-percent raise.
“I don’t get involved with anything fishy–”
“All above board,” Vincent said. “I’m just looking to help someone, ya know?”
“Yeah, I know. And it doesn’t work like that,” Martin said.
Vincent took a deep breath and pulled one of Martin’s DVDs from a cardboard box. “I’m guessing you don’t sell these by only using your good looks.”
Martin picked up a half-empty styrofoam cup and took a swig of soda, then wiped his mouth with a hair-thin napkin. He decided not to answer.
“You sure you don’t want the gig?” Vincent asked. “One-hundred grand. Half up front.”
The number nearly made Martin choke on his drink. That was twice as much as he’d net in one year. Alarm bells went off. “If you’re willing to pay that much, then I’m positive,” he replied.
“Okay.” Vincent tossed the DVD back into the box. “Okay. I’ll let you be.” He started to exit the tent and then turned around. “You know, it’s for my baby girl, Martin. She needs help.”
Now he was going for the sympathy card. Was she smoking weed in the back of her car during lunch hour? Seeing some boy Vincent didn’t approve of? Though Vincent, casually wearing a Versace coat over his plain white t-shirt, obviously had money to throw around, things didn’t add up, even if it was his daughter.
“Sorry,” Martin said.
Vincent shrugged slowly and walked through the tent flap. Just as Martin’s teeth sunk midway through greasy corndog breading, Vincent popped his head back in.
“Oh, I almost forgot, I need to meet with you after the fair closes on Friday. I just remembered that the board voted on some budget adjustments and we’re going to have to talk about your contract for next year.”
Martin met the man’s steely gaze. He should have known it wasn’t going to be so simple.
“Fine. What do you want?”
I’ve never done anything like this, Martin had told Vincent in the man’s cavernous, Georgian-style entryway. I’m not sure–
Vincent had shut him up by unlatching the brown leather briefcase and revealing rows of tightly wrapped greenbacks. You got one hour to do the job, he had said.
And what if it doesn’t work, Martin asked.
You get to keep your $50k.
Martin didn’t need to follow up on what that might mean for his fairgrounds future. He’d have to consider it a severance package.
Standing at her bedside, he set the timer on his watch.
“Hi, Judy. My name is Martin Yurik.” He cleared his throat. Manipulating people on the stage was different–very different–than manipulating a person in private. When it was done in front of a live audience, showmanship made up over fifty-percent of it. And he never outright lied to them. He just convinced them to believe certain things that were untrue for entertainment value. It was harmless.
His stomach churned as he stared at the IV drip-line running into the pinched flesh between her forearm and bicep. The girl’s face was pale and freckled. Her brown, almost red, hair was curly and fell neatly onto her shoulders. She had tiny ears and, oddly, had foundation in place along with mauve lipstick. If it wasn’t for the bleeps and bloops of surrounding medical gear and the sickeningly sterile mix of rubbing alcohol and bleach permeating the room, she might have been any ordinary girl taking a nap. He tried to spot some resemblance between her and Vincent, but he was struggling.
The room was oddly decorated for a young girl who didn’t look a day over eighteen. It resembled more of a cookie-cutter four-star hotel room with its cherry oak furniture and simple, french vanilla walls graced with a pair of still-life oil prints. If this wasn’t Judy’s bedroom, Martin wondered why her father wouldn’t want her to potentially wake up in a more familiar place. Still, he wasn’t handed a briefcase filled with $50,000 cash that morning to think beyond his job.
Martin sat down on the empty folding chair beside the bed and took hold of Judy’s hand. Small graphs sketched up and down in see-saw patterns on monochrome green monitors, recording, Martin supposed, those all-important ‘vitals’ he had always heard about but never understood.
“I’m going play some light music for you now,” Martin said. He reached over to the nightstand and pressed play on his portable stereo. The sound of the CD spinning generated a slight scraping sound before the tinkles and tings of ambient bells floated through the air.
According to Vincent, the doctors said she could hear and sense everything around her. Martin had plenty of firsts in his life, but he never even fathomed he could hypnotize someone in a coma. What would be the point?
Now he knew.
He peered down into the girl’s face again.
Martin’s one job was simple, but not easy:
He had to convince Judy to wake up.
Initially, Vincent wanted to be there during the whole thing. He said he wanted Judy to wake up and see his face, but Martin told him he’d refuse to do the job unless he was alone with her. He didn’t need the distraction. Vincent was reluctant but relented.
Please, don’t ask my Judy any questions, he had said. I don’t want her to be confused. Her doctors insist I be the first to speak with her. If she’s awake before the hour’s up, you come and get me.
Martin’s only hope was that a part of Judy’s mind had an inclination to come back to the real world. If there was something here, even a sliver of memory that she cherished, who was Martin to say it was impossible?
But what if she didn’t want to wake up? What if she was having the most amazing dream? People like Vincent didn’t fully grasp that you couldn’t violate a person’s moral judgment or make them believe something against their will. If she had a strong enough reason to keep thinking the thoughts she was thinking, well, that was that.
Martin rolled up his sleeves, unbuttoned the top button of his collar, and for the next thirty minutes, went to work.
“One, you’re slowly feeling all of your faculties returning under your control. Two, you’re beginning to move around, stretching your body, feeling the electric impulses flow through your nervous system. And three, you’re wide awake!”
After the snap of his fingers, nothing.
Beside leafless branches of elm scratching the outside of the shade-drawn bedroom window, the only noise was the squeaking of the folding chair as Martin shifted his weight toward Judy.
He placed an ear over her mouth and listened to her steady breathing.
At least the fifty grand would keep him afloat while he searched for a replacement job. The San Flamenco County Fair was his best-paying gig, both in the payout from the board and the quantity of merchandise he sold. He’d have to travel out of state, probably across the country, to make up for the loss.
He looked down at his watch. Ten minutes left. He paced the room, thinking about contacts he could ring up when, suddenly, the beeping from the monitors went haywire, speeding up and out of rhythm so rapidly until they flatlined within seconds.
Martin’s stomach fell and his mind went instantly to matters of escape. What would Vincent think, Martin being the only one in the room with the girl?
Just as quickly as they’d stopped, the steady tones returned. The monitor patterns were see-sawing again and Martin was grateful the chair was directly behind him, because his ass would have landed on the floor the second he saw her light blue eyes focused on him.
“Help,” she croaked.
Martin fed Judy water through a straw to ease her throat pain and listened intently as she filled him in on as much as she could.
She told him she wasn’t Vincent’s daughter. Her real father was an ex-business partner of Vincent’s. The two had a falling out and Vincent had kidnapped her, trying to get her to reveal where the family had stashed some money he believed he was owed. She began to cry, telling Martin that she really didn’t know, but Vincent didn’t believe her. During her interrogation, she had been beaten so badly, she fell asleep, unable to wake up until now.
That’s when Martin noticed the faint bruises beneath her makeup.
He learned she had only been under for about a week.
“You have to help me,” she said.
This was turning into a nightmare. A very, very large part of Martin wished he’d never given in to Vincent’s ultimatum, but now that he knew about Judy’s situation, he couldn’t just abandon her.
Seconds before his watch timer went off, the hinges of the bedroom door squealed.
Vincent stood in the doorframe with a pistol in his hand and a solemn look on his face.
“Thanks, Martin. I had faith in you. But remember, I told you that I had to be the first one to speak to her. Doctor’s orders.”
It didn’t take Martin long to wrap things up. The music was still playing in the background, just below the surface of consciousness. He was lucky Vincent had been listening through the door long enough to slip into the first stage of suggestion.
“Vincent, your daughter is going to be late for school. You asked me to pick her up, remember? You said you weren’t feeling well and needed your rest.”
Vincent stared at Martin, yet somehow past him, with the eyes of a lost soul. Martin put on an air of confidence, much like he was up on stage. Still, tiny tremors ran through his body and he placed one hand on the back of his chair to steady himself.
“Oh, right. I…uh…really do appreciate you picking her up,” he said.
Cold waves of relief swept through Martin’s core. He kept himself focused on Vincent.
“Don’t forget,” Martin said, “before you take your nice, long, relaxing nap, that you were going to loan me your gun for safekeeping.”
Vincent eyed the pistol in his hand as if wondering how it had gotten there. He extended it to Martin who gently pulled it away. He stood there, dazed, while Martin helped Judy out of bed. She was too weak to walk on her own and he had to carry her down the stairs to his car.
Martin drove off to the police station with a briefcase full of bills and a girl full of details.