“Party Tricks” by Travis Madden is the Grand Prize-winning story of the 12th Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an exclusive interview with the Grand Prize winner and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2017 issue of Writer’s Digest. And click here for more information about entering the 13th Annual Popular Fiction Awards.
In this bonus online exclusive, you can read Madden’s winning entry.
Party Tricks by Travis Madden
“You won’t do it.” Steve smirked, leaned back in his chair. “Watch me,” Patrick said.
He lifted the gun to his head and pulled the trigger.
He was drunk when he did it. That was probably the only reason it happened. Or at least happened the way it did. The whole thing was kind of like a dream, the way it picked up right in the middle of things; Patrick hardly remembered where it all began. He had a slight inclination as to how they got to this point, but it was mostly a drunken blur, submerged in a glass of rum. Lost in a cloud of smoke. He remembered snippets. The music heating the party up, changing from a slower jam to something EDM that sounded like a computer projectile vomiting. Feeling hotter himself. Enclosed. He took off his sweater and it helped a little. Turned on the fan and it helped a little more. But it still felt like he was standing on a beach underneath a baking sun.
And then, in that non-sequential dream logic, Patrick was sitting at the card table, the body of the revolver instead of the grip in his hand. He stared down at the table, its surface pocked and stained from years of abuse. He winced. Around him were his best friend Steve; sun-bleached hair and a swimmer’s body, Patrick’s fellow librarian Christie, and her girlfriend Barb. Quiet, new to the group, but nice.
Steve was the drunkest of them all. He moved like he was underwater, all of his actions in slow motion. Barb was only nursing her drink, staying close to Christie—who, like Patrick, was tipsy but not drunk—but still more than willing to open up conversation. They all stared at Patrick, rapt.
“You won’t do it.” Eyes widened. “Watch me.”
Patrick lifted the gun to his head. Pulled the trigger before anyone could even protest. Something enormous and horrible and oh god so terrifyingly familiar flashed through him. It was that momentary glimpse you get of a horror movie monster before it fully reveals itself. Even though Patrick knew damn well what that monster was, coming after him as he was—curled into the fetal position in a closet like a vertical coffin lightless yelling from somewhere in the enormity of the house feels like it’s from everywhere like the whole house is screaming as—the hammer clacked down on an empty chamber. And just like that the memory was gone.
Was…was that supposed to be his life flashing before his eyes? He had already seen all that, didn’t want to think about it again, especially those parts.
Slowly, Patrick lowered the revolver, put it down on the table, his finger well away from the trigger. The apartment seemed smaller all of a sudden. Or maybe it was Patrick who had gotten bigger—eat me—like that scene from Alice in Wonderland, suddenly gobbling up all the attention in the room. The windows seemed to shrink and lights dim, as if fate’s stage direction had suddenly demanded all the attention on him; the young man who’d almost accidentally committed suicide.
People all around the apartment had seen what had happened, too. Slowly, the rest of the room came into focus. There was stunned silence, everyone still basking in a moment that they weren’t sure was insane or funny. Women clutched nonexistent pearls or a nearby knee. Men gripped their drinks harder. Surely, in the dark corners of their minds, the only other alternate scene played out, as it did in Patrick’s own head; his brains blown out all over his living room, what was supposed to be a joke turned into something so awful there wasn’t a word for it. Accident wouldn’t have seemed even remotely sufficient. No, Patrick had seen—accidents just an accident mommy just fell down the stairs everything’s okay it was just an—accidents and he had seen deliberately—hid underneath his bed and from what he thought was safety Patrick saw a pair of boots silhouetted against the light coming from the hallway standing in the middle of his bedroom toes pointed straight at him and a hand reached down—and neither of those words fit this situation.
Slowly, as if afraid that any fast movements would set off the metaphysical bomb they were now all sure lurked somewhere nearby, everyone breathed. Quietly.
Steve sat at the other end of the card table. His eyes were wide. His jaw hung open. A bit of amazed drool pooled at the corners of his mouth, like he had been lobotomized by the event. Christie clung to Barb’s hand, whose eyes had widened to the size of dinner plates.
“Yo,” Steve said, the silence broken. He had finally seemed to figure out how his mouth worked. “Dude…what…” Although all he seemed to be able to come up with was simple words. Finally, he laughed. “Never again let it be said that Patrick Hamill does…Not. Go. Hard!” He slapped the table with each final word, emphasizing them. And then he burst out laughing.
And then everyone laughed.
It started off slowly, the nervous chuckle and compliment from Steve before escalating, rolling across the table and then the apartment and through everyone inside, turning from nervous laughter to thank-god-we’re-alive gallows hilarity to genuine enjoyment. As it changed, the room seemed to expand, to breathe. Patrick focused on the light color of the walls instead of the thought of the crowd closing in to consume him. He saw light from the street coming in through the windows, heard the chatter of the music he’d forgotten was playing (from EDM nonsense back to something slower, almost acoustic).
Patrick looked down from the laughter at the revolver that laid in front of him. Slowly, carefully, he opened it and removed the bullet by emptying it out into his left hand. He did not look to see what chamber it had been in, how close he had come to suicide, accidental—no deliberate as big calloused hands gripped his own arm—or not. Still, without the bullet in the weapon, Patrick felt hot, enclosed, like he was in the gullet of some eldritch creature that had been so very close to swallowing him. A creature whose grip he had not yet entirely escaped. It reminded him of that thing that he saw when he pulled the trigger, which reminded him of the time—his father took him to see The Thing at a theater in the city. Limited engagements of classic movies. There were sticky patches on the floor where spilled soda had never been cleaned up and most of the theater seats had enormous rips in them but Patrick wasn’t so worried about it because he was doing something with his father and that never happened so he wanted to enjoy it.
At first, when something scary happened on screen, Patrick covered his face and ears with his hands and pulled his legs up into his seat, as if the Thing itself had somehow crept into the theater and underneath his chair. When the scary part went away and Patrick released his grip on his face, his attention was drawn first not the enormous screen, but to his father staring down at him. He only looked down at his son, said nothing, but he didn’t need to. Everything Patrick needed to see was readable on his father’s face, in those dark, green eyes.
Instead of covering his face with his hands when the next scary thing happened, Patrick looked at the green, glowing EXIT sign. He didn’t lift his hands. Didn’t even turn his head. Just moved his eyes away from the screen to stare at that single glowing word as some amorphous shape in his peripheral vision moved and screamed—
When Steve asked how long Patrick had had a gun, all he gave was a non-answer, something that no one probably remembered the next day. An excuse about once living in a bad neighborhood. That must have made sense to all. They each knew someone else— uncle, cousin, nutty neighbor—who took advantage of their Second Amendment rights, even if they only said it was for the legitimate reason of protection.
And everyone knew Patrick’s dad had been killed in that bad neighborhood a few years ago.
None of them knew that Patrick did it, though.
Russian roulette became Patrick’s thing soon after, like how people in a friend group can become defined by one unique thing they do that no one else they know does. Casual conversations include harmless labeling such as I don’t know about that; Steve’s the fantasy football guy or You know Christie’s into that krav maga? Yeah, she’s the athletic girl. Patrick was the Russian roulette guy. No one ever told new friends or plus ones about Patrick’s thing, which was Steve’s self-proclaimed hilarious idea. And sometimes it was. That was part of the fun. It had become one of those actions that it was hard to tell exactly when it had become acceptable. It just had. But soon enough everyone was in on it; no one knew exactly when during any given night it would happen. Patrick would go fetch his gun and pull the trigger sitting—in the nurse’s office telling her he got hurt on the playground when really it was at home which explained the weird shape the bruise and while he sat there he remembered the crunch of the gravel driveway in the middle of the night and the high-powered headlights penetrating the house and that god- awful smell of cigarettes and sweat that accompanied the intermittent stumbling sound of heavy boots as he wandered down the hallway and stepped—in full view of them all and there would be laughter and screams and cheers and it was all good fun.
But after awhile some of their friends began to whisper.
“Word is you never even load the gun,” Christie said offhandedly one day when she and Patrick were shopping. “Sleight of hand.” She helped him leaf through a display of birthday cards for his mother’s upcoming fifty-fourth. She walked with the cane even though she was far too young for that sort of thing. “Good move.” Christie left it at that, as if she had discovered the magician’s underwhelming secret.
“Yeah,” Patrick said, his voice a dead monotone. Good move.
He asked around to see if that particular piece of gossip was really running rampant.
“You don’t load it,” Steve said as the two of them carpooled to the theater one afternoon. It had been a long, long time since Patrick had last covered his eyes in a scary movie. He couldn’t even remember what they were going to go see. He was distracted. “That’s what they say,” Steve told him. And then, “Do you? Load it?” He asked the second question noticeably quieter.
“Yeah,” Patrick said in the same duhr tone he would have used as if Steve had just asked him if the Earth was really round.
And so, like that costumed magician, Patrick changed his routine accordingly. He made a show out of pulling out the revolver, of holding up the bullet so that it glinted just so off the light—in his own apartment—in Steve’s house—in the firelight when some of them went camping one weekend—wherever his stage was that week. Ladies and gentlemen, you are in for a treat tonight! Patrick would put the bullet into one of the chambers, spin the cylinder and snap it shut with that loud clack, just like they did in action movies. He kept his left hand well away from the gun while he did, just to ensure his audience that there was no sleight of hand. This was the real deal, the routine said. Patrick pulled the trigger—the sound of his mother’s door opening in the middle of the night the sound of a struggle and muffled cries—and the hammer clicked down on an empty chamber over and over.
Patrick heard more rumors, peanut gallery whispers immediately after he pulled the trigger in the midst of all the gasps and screams, especially from newcomers. He had to remove the gunpowder from the bullet. Or maybe he took the firing pin out. There was no way someone would actually do this. Right? It angered Patrick when he first heard it, but figured they were just telling themselves that. Yes, the idea of trickery must be much more comfortable thought as Patrick—stared down at the Rorschach pattern of the bruise on his own arm when he was—pulled the trigger. He did it again—thinking about his mother sitting at the kitchen table with her robe pulled tight around her despite the July heat hiding something and Patrick knew it was the inevitable forgiveness—from party to party. Girls—giggled and fawned over him—laughed, as did everyone else when the danger passed.
Patrick spun the barrel of the revolver, but this time he was alone. In the bathtub. He was naked, told himself he was going to get a shower, but he hadn’t yet turned on the water. Instead he sat there and stared at the gun. He liked the whirring sound the cylinder made as he spun it. For some reason he found it comforting, like the steady tick-tick-tick of a metronome, and he needed that comfort. Patrick spun the cylinder again—tick-tick- tick—and with that rapid-fire clicking came more flashes of—people everywhere, a crowd in the street, on the sidewalk, despite the radioactive green glow of the traffic light warning them not to. Go. Go. That was the only thing that seemed to matter, that green glow, the universe giving him permission. EXIT. And after it was all over, after it had been done, Patrick stared up at it, knowing what awaited him if he looked away from it, just like he knew what awaited him if he looked at that movie screen. He couldn’t see, but he could certainly hear. All the sound. All the voices.
The light changed from green to yellow.
Slow down (speed up)—memories of that hot afternoon. Patrick imagined pulling the trigger in fast-forward, each individual click the sound of an empty—until it wasn’t— chamber. He looked at—the…thing…lying in the street in an ever-widening pool of blood. His (it’s?) leg was twisted around in the wrong direction, stuck up towards the clear, blue sky. A piece of bone jutted out of his arm. One eye was completely ruined and the other was red with bloodshot and it stared up from the ground at Patrick with a certain and terrifying knowledge, memory of a pair of hands on his back and the sudden push forward. You did this. And—the barrel pressed up against his head.
Very slowly he turned the pistol, looked into its dark mouth. The way these weapons were set up, Patrick could see where the bullet was if he looked at the gun dead- on. And what he saw were four empty holes that looked back up at him. Four dark, emotionless eyes and between them a fifth.
Staring harder. Darker.
A black hole in the center of the universe that seemed to tug on him. Was the bullet in there? Or was it in the lowermost chamber? A fifty-fifty chance now.
Patrick took a deep breath. Cracked open the revolver. Stepped out of the bathtub.
Pulled the bullet from the topmost chamber. Returned it to its box of ammunition.
He put the revolver back in its case.
Pulled on pants. Stepped out onto his balcony.
He took a deep breath and smelled the fresh air, listened to the sounds of the birds singing, and the bustle of the city below and all around.
Tomorrow, he’d see if he could sell the gun back. Tomorrow, he’d find a new thing.