"Why did you agree to ride the stupid thing if you knew you were going to get sick?"
The man leaning over the trash can wiped the back of his hand against his mouth before answering.
"You really wanted to do it. It seemed a good idea at the time."
It seemed a good idea at the time. Story of my life. Or at least, story of why I found myself at a county fair in rural Illinois selling art prints. Well, ostensibly selling art prints. You'll see.
"Those are really weird."
The comment drew my attention back to my booth where two teen-aged girls stood looking at my wares. The blond was holding one of my prints at arms length, turning it this way and that with a quizzical look, while her redheaded friend scanned the booth.
"What are they supposed to be?"
"They're called stereograms," I said. They looked at me like I had spoken a foreign language. "Inside of that design is a hidden picture. If you focus your eyes just right the picture pops out."
I pointed to the sample slide I kept. On the left was a typical stereogram with its odd jumble of shapes and colors. On the right was the hidden image. The blond looked at the picture in her hand and squinted for a few seconds.
"I don't see anything."
"Let me try," Red said. Blondie handed it over. Red stared for a bit. I could tell she was trying too hard.
"The trick is to act like you're staring off into space," I said. "Let your eyes go slightly out of focus; like you're staring straight ahead but seeing something out of the corners of both eyes."
It only took a second. Her eyes relaxed just a tad, and then....
"I see it! Awe, it's a teddy bear holding balloons."
"Let me see that." Blondie snatched the print away. She practically glared at the picture, willing the image to come forth. Of course it didn't. Her friend, meanwhile, had gone immediately to the other prints. It was always entertaining to see the delight in their eyes as this whole new world opened up to them. If only they knew.
"Carly, I don't see it," Blondie said.
"Try this one," Carly replied, thrusting a second print into Blondie's hands, "it's Elvis!"
After watching her squirm for another minute I finally handed over the "cheat sheet." I suppose I could have done that immediately, but my instructions were very clear: those with aptitude are more likely to figure it out on their own - let them try, then focus your attention on the ones that succeed. Still, you get more sales if people can actually appreciate the product, and while I wasn't doing this for the money, the extra cash was nice. The cheat sheet had two black squares printed just above the picture. Most people can unfocus their eyes enough to get the two squares to turn into three. When that happens, voila! The picture appears as if by magic. It was no wonder one of the companies that did so well selling stereograms in the '80s was called "Magic Eye." Such poetic irony.
With the help of the cheat sheet, Blondie finally mastered the process. The girls spent another five minutes at the booth, pouring over the prints. They found a few they liked, but were hesitant about making a purchase. I sweetened the deal.
"Look, I'm running a special contest at the fair. See that big picture back there?" I pointed at the large framed stereogram at the back of the booth. It was hard to see in the shadows of the tent. "That stereogram is something really special. The frame alone is worth $300. Everyone who purchases a print gets a game sheet."
I pulled out a folded sheet of paper. A staple held the fold closed. On the outside of the sheet was a color picture of a beautiful forest scene. "You pull the winning piece, you get the prize."
The girls looked at the paper. "Is that what the picture in the stereogram looks like?" Carly asked." It's beautiful."
"And that's just a printout. The real thing is unbelievable."
"Can we see it?"
I frowned. "The real one is actually painted. The sunlight isn't good for it."
It took some more convincing, but in the end they took the bait and made the purchase. I handed them their game sheets, and they promptly tore them open to reveal identical stereograms.
"How do we know if we won?"
"The winning piece has a stereogram whose picture actually moves as you look at it."
Both girls looked at their papers. I could tell by their faces they hadn't won. I sighed.
"No such luck? Well, maybe next time. Why don't you keep the game sheets, show them to your friends? Maybe someone else will see what you couldn't."
It was a ridiculous suggestion, but each girl nodded in turn, their game sheets firmly in hand. They left the booth seeming somewhat dazed, a natural enough reaction given the circumstances.
The scene repeated itself often throughout the day. People made purchases and walked away with losing game sheets. It was rather depressing, really. Sure, I made enough dough to cover the cost of the booth and pocket some spare change, but that wasn't why I was here. And time was running out.
Soon the sun was down and the fair was closing down for the night. I sighed in frustration as I released the ties that held the front flaps to the booth open. Time was short. If I didn't find a winner soon....
I turned to find a young boy, maybe twelve years of age, poking his head past the flaps. His bright red hair was sticking up at angles, and he was breathing heavily.
"Are you the one running the sterothingy contest?"
"I am," I said. "Why do you ask?"
"My sister showed me this game sheet she got here earlier. She says it's not a winner, but I think she's wrong. The clown is definitely waving his arm in this picture. At least, it does when I look at it."
My heart skipped a beat. No, it couldn't be. I looked at the boy more closely. Now that I took the time to study his face I recognized the family resemblance to that girl Carly who had stopped by earlier. They certainly shared the same hair. Carly had been a quick study. Was it possible?
"What's your name?" I asked.
"Why don't you bring the sheet in, Simon, and I'll check its number against my list."
Simon came into the booth, letting the flap close behind him. I took the paper, and then pulled a binder out from under the front table.
"That's the prize back there. Give it a look-see."
Simon wandered over to the large framed stereogram. I watched him intently as he went, dropping the paper to the table. I didn't need to look up the imaginary number. All of the game sheets were identical. It was the person who mattered.
Simon stood before the picture. There was a moment of stillness as his eyes refocused - then widened in alarm. Light spilled from the picture, casting Simon's features in an eerie green glow. He opened his mouth to scream.
A graceful hand darted from painting to stop abruptly, its index finger resting on Simon's forehead. Simon froze in place. After a moment the hand withdrew.
The voice that called to me was all milk and honey, but I knew the truth of it. I made my way around behind Simon so I could see past him. Before me, framed in varnished oak, stood an arcane doorway to the faerie realm. The creature on the other side was beautiful in an alien way. On the outside, anyway.
"I am surprised, Thomas. I did not think this plan of yours would succeed."
If I had to be honest, I hadn't thought it would succeed either. But I wasn't going to tell her that.
"That's because you don't see things the same way as humans do, Queen Mab. When magicians use the Sight it is identical to the process used to view these pictures I've shown you. Since the Gate I placed on this painting can only be triggered by viewing it with the Sight, it makes sense that humans with magical potential who use the technique will trigger it - even though they aren't actively using magic."
At least, that had been the idea. Until now it had just been a theory.
"I care not for your explanations," Queen Mab said. "I care only for the terms of our bargain: your ability to wield magic in exchange for young magicians to mold to my will. This youngling makes one, Thomas. You owe me two, still. Think you capable of fulfilling the bargain in the allotted time?"
"Of course." I hoped.
"Do not forget, I would take you in their place." She smiled. The sharp beauty of it cut me to the core. I shuddered.
Queen Mab laughed, retreating back into her realm with the helpless Simon in tow.
So now you see.
"How could you?" you ask. "Whatever could have possessed you to make such a deal?"
The only answer I have: it seemed like a good idea at the time.