Author's note: This is my entry for RedNovaTyrant's "Cruel Fate" Writing Contest. Fate has dealt me the card #1, The Magician.
Everything Tiffany had read so far made her uneasy, but with each turn of the page, she became more and more engaged. It had all started with the title. It confused her a bit at first that such a book would even catch her eye. She considered herself to be quite normal and well-adjusted, so why, she wondered, would a book with such a strange title pique her interest?
Maybe she should have also asked herself where everyone was that day. The checkout desk was conspicuously vacant and not a single student was present. She couldn't recall another time the library had been so quiet. Low, courteous tones were strictly mandated and upheld by the school librarian. Still, on any other day, there would, at the very least, have been the occasional boom of a dropped book, a quickly hushed bout of laughter, or the discordant chatter of some student lacking the presence of mind to maintain a whisper.
The absence of those or other common bits of noise should have set her on edge and offered some warning. Instead, the silence and lack of eyes upon her inspired the inner explorer that resides in all children. She wandered the many aisles of books, pretending that each and every one of them belonged to her. She imagined she could read whatever she wanted without judgment and even borrow a book without properly checking it out.
That last thought surprised her quite a bit, but she quickly brushed it off as just another part of the fantasy. She had no intention of actually taking any books. At least not until she came upon "The Mischief Incarnate." The heavy, textbook-size tome was lying there in the middle of the aisle as if waiting for her.
She picked it up and immediately noticed it didn't have any of the telltale markings of a library book. There were no stickers on the spine and cover or even a pocket in the back. While that did puzzle her, it was the lack of a copyright page or any mention of the author that really grabbed her attention. She didn't raise her eyes from its pages until the warning bell yanked her back to reality. She grabbed her bag and rushed to class.
It wasn't until after school that she found the book in her bag. She shoved the bag down by her feet and spent the rest of the bus ride home staring out the window, trying not to think about what she'd done.
Tiffany tossed the bag on her bedroom floor and forgot all about it until she went to bed. She held out until 3:00 AM, lying there in the dark trying not to think about the book stashed between two incomplete homework assignments. At first, she thought the guilt of stealing and not doing her homework was what kept her awake, but as the hours crept by, it slowly dawned on her it was the great cat killer, curiosity.
The urge to read just a few more pages nagged at her. When her resolve did finally crack, it cracked wide open. She slipped out of bed and rushed to her bag, nearly pulling the zipper off in her frenzy to claim the prize within.
Once she had the book in her hands, she grabbed a flashlight and slipped back under the covers. She read until a few hours later when she heard her mother doing her routine zombie walk to the coffee maker. Once her mother was out of sight, she slipped into the hall and tiptoed to the bathroom.
Once inside, she twisted the cap off the little bottle of red food coloring she'd brought along to sell her ruse. She had no doubt it would fool her father, but she wasn't so sure about her mother. It just seemed much more efficient than a hot water bottle and less gross than a finger down the throat. She didn't much like the idea of playing hooky from school, but all she wanted to do was read more of the book.
Such a naughty scheme had never occurred to her before, and yet she felt exhilarated by how imaginative and clever it made her feel. She laid the book in her lap and flipped through its pages in search of a passage that would ease her trepidation. The page she wanted came to hand quite easily as if conjured up by magic.
The taboo surrounding deception is man-made and the greatest of all their deceptions. Every creature lies and if all creatures lie than why should even one pretend to do otherwise? Is doing so not also a lie?
It felt wrong to give even a second thought to such an idea, but it did make a kind of sense to her. She knew kids in school that lied and she'd even caught her parents lying to her on several occasions. She knew damn well they weren't wrestling that one night she walked in on them.
She'd learned about the birds and the bees in the fourth grade, so they didn't have to lie to her. Especially not about something perfectly normal and natural for mommies and daddies to do. Although, she didn't recall learning anything about handcuffs in class.
She also wasn't fooled for a moment when they brought home a cake with "Happy Birthday, Jooly" written in yellow frosting. They weren't given the wrong cake at the bakery. That lie made even less sense than the other one. It bothered her they thought such a frivolous lie could fool her.
They'd forgotten to order a cake in advance and had to settle for a reject. She would have understood if they had just told her that. It was kind of funny after all. Who can't spell Julie?
It hadn't dawned on her until she heard her mother's car pulling out of the driveway that she'd have to play out the lie for several days every month until nature took its course. The physical evidence ended up not being necessary; nobody wants to see that, but still she giggled and said, "I'm gonna need more food coloring."
All that day, Tiffany laid in bed reading with a pinpoint focus she'd never experienced before. She loved learning new things, but this was different. Never before had she read such a thick book, especially one with so many unfamiliar words and foreign concepts. She struggled at first but eventually no longer needed to reread passages. Before long she was speed reading at a rate that would have baffled people that teach seminars on the subject.
That night at dinner, Tiffany absentmindedly picked at her plate of liver and onions. She couldn't stop thinking about the book and the many interesting things she'd gleaned from its pages. She was more than a little surprised it had taken her less than a day to read most of it. As she sat there wondering what the last chapter had in store for her, a passage from the book came to mind.
It shall pass through any portal of your choosing, but choose wisely for your decision will reflect greatly upon many things seen and unseen.
The thought of drawing the Mischief into the world of man seemed like some good old-fashioned scary fun, but she had no intention of performing the ritual. It was just fiction. She wasn't going to be one of those kids that got too carried away with fantasy role-play. Besides, she doubted she had the nerve to sneak out at night by herself.
However, she did flirt with the idea for a moment while moving a rather big chunk of liver around on her plate. Acquiring some of the ingredients would be a bit of a challenge, and yes, the instructions were a little strange, if not outright macabre. Even so, the prospect of bringing a little bit of magic back into the world did make her wish it could all be possible.
The book told a fantastical history of the world. One where man waged war upon the beasts of the land, twisted the pure essence of the four elements, and systematically banished all magic from the world. Even though the book's depictions of the old world seemed quite frightening and chaotic, she couldn't help but think maybe that was better than the facade man had created.
Tiffany thought of the frog spawn her biology teacher had brought to class. She figured it would be the perfect medium mainly because she loved frogs, but also because she wouldn't want the Mischief to be too big and uncontrollable. She didn't know why her first thought had been an ostrich egg. Even if she could somehow get her hands on one, she balked at the idea of trying to hide a giant bird from her parents. Besides, ostriches were awkward and ugly while frogs were cute and interesting little creatures.
"You're awfully quiet tonight. You feeling alright?"
"Sure, Mom, I'm fine. It's just been a strange day."
Her father swallowed a piece of liver awkwardly at the hint of what went on that morning. He cleared his throat and tried to sound encouraging. "Uh... yeah, I bet it has been." Seeming to have lost his appetite, he set his fork down and dabbed at his mouth with his napkin. Tiffany and her mother gave each other a knowing glance as they laughed playfully at his discomfort.
After dinner, Tiffany rushed to her room to finish the book. Despite not having slept the night before, she was giddy with excitement and brimming with an energy that felt almost electric. The book she pulled out from under her bed was worn and faded, its pages yellowed. She swore it looked almost brand-new when she found it.
Thoughts of a boy from the neighborhood popped into her head. She touched her lips, wondering what her first kiss would be like. Jason was a bit older than her, a freshman in high school, but their difference in age didn't weaken her resolve to one day grab him by his shirt collar and pull him in for a hot steamy kiss.
She shook the thought from her head and with it her observations of the book's withering complexion. It laid there on the desk open to the beginning of the final chapter. She didn't recall opening it but thought nothing of it since daydreaming about Jason always made her space out a little.
Sadly, it didn't take long before her enthusiasm died on the vine. She came to a page with the words "The Final Lesson" written in bold print. She flipped back and forth through the blank pages that came after but found nothing. Eventually, she stowed the book under her bed and laid down. Despite feeling shortchanged and irritated like her mother had felt when she received a ten-dollar check from Publishers Clearing House, Tiffany fell asleep almost instantly.
She woke up the next morning with a resolve to finish what she had started. And just like that, Tiffany had begun to believe the impossible could be possible. She decided to test her mettle and perform the ritual.
Reading the book had been the first step. Scattered throughout its pages was everything she needed to perform the ritual. The second was acceptance. Tiffany needed to believe something was missing from the world and she could draw it back into being. The third step was gathering all the necessary provisions to complete that task, and the fourth was finding and preparing the conjuring site.
Tiffany knelt down and dug a hole big enough to fit her splayed hands side by side. She then poured in a bit of water and shaped the hole until it was smooth and concave like a basin. Next, she carved a pentacle in the center and applied a thick layer of honey to the basin's surface. She carved in the soil the first loop of the symbol for infinity around the basin and the final loop where she would kneel during the rite.
To the left of the basin, outside of the infinity symbol, she placed her father's machete and to the right, a short stick with one scorched end. She then filled the basin with pig's blood. It flopped into the basin in one big congealed clump, jiggling like a jello mold. Using a butane torch, she heated it until it bubbled and rippled like water.
While the blood cooled, she ran off through the forest to the creek nearby to wash her hands and mentally prepare herself for what would come next. About halfway there, she realized she'd forgotten her flashlight. She didn't need it, though, for wherever she tread, beams of moonlight found their way through the trees, lighting her way. If someone had told Tiffany a few weeks ago she would soon be prancing through the woods in the middle of the night without a stitch of clothing on, she would have laughed and said they were crazy.
When she reached the creek, she came upon a young doe dipping its tongue into the cool water. She immediately stopped in her tracks, worried the deer would bolt, but instead, it lifted its head and looked right at her. It stepped into the shallow creek, disturbing the reflection of the waning moon on the water's surface, and confidently strode up to the young girl.
The doe stood before Tiffany for a few seconds and then calmly turned and walked further along the creek. She gazed after it until it rounded the bend and slipped out of sight. Tiffany raised her hands to the sky and looked up at the stars above. There was magic at play. She could taste it on her lips and feel it running along her goose-pimpled flesh. As she stared up into the universe, the stars seemed to flicker with a message only she was mean't to read.
She understood the deer's acceptance of her was a sign. The creatures of the forest knew what she was up to and they approved. She needed only to return to the ritual site, don her cloak of blood, and break the spell that has held man above all others for far too long. She knelt down in the water, unfazed by its chilling touch, and washed her dirty hands. Then she turned back the way she had come and dashed off toward her destiny.
Tiffany awoke just before daybreak. She rose up from the ground and brushed off the bits of leaves and detritus that clung to her dew-speckled skin. She recalled the few hours before with a feeling of awe that threatened to overwhelm her senses and send her rushing through the forest like a wild animal. She felt alive in a way she'd never experienced before.
The earth beneath her feet gave off a warmth that soothed her aching muscles. The scent on a nearby bush told her of the coyote that stood sentinel over her while she slept. A robin alighted on a tree limb overhead and for a split second, she could see herself through its eyes.
She glanced down at the basin beside her. It was empty of all signs it had ever been anything but a shallow hole dug by some animal. The frog spawn she had placed within it was gone as well.
She smiled and began to spin in a tight circle, stretching her arms out wide as she slowly raised several inches off the ground. She touched back down a few moments later and howled in delight. Her voice carried through the trees, echoing out into the neighborhood. Suddenly, she became aware of her appearance. No one would understand if they found her naked in the woods with dried blood caked on her shoulders and back.
She quickly got dressed, gathered her things, and rushed home.
Ben pried open the five-gallon bucket and leapt back as if his nose had suddenly caught on fire. Tears streamed from his irritated eyes as he pawed at his face in an attempt to extinguish the nasty stench clinging to his nose hairs. "Oh God..." he yelped in a nasal tone, fingers clamped tightly on his nose, "it's so much worse than the last time we filled it. Maybe putting water in it was a bad idea."
Jason tipped the shovel full of grade-A poodle shit into the bucket and dropped the shovel onto the grass. Immediately shielding his nose with the crook of his arm, he stepped back and exclaimed, "Phew! Yeah, I'd say it's about ready. Trust me, Benny, dog shit stew is a much better way to serve up revenge than a few turds hidden under the floor mats. This concoction will make all his attempts to remove the stench, short of selling the car, completely useless."
Ben snapped the lid down tightly and retreated to a safe distance, rubbing his forearm across his nose violently. "Sure... you said... all that before, but it just seems like we're pranking ourselves. He'll get one good whiff of it, puke if we're lucky, and then just call his daddy to deal with it while we've been torturing ourselves for nearly two weeks gathering all this nasty stuff."
Jason laughed, "Oh, you're probably right about him passing the buck to his dad, but it will be a whiff he will never forget. The memory of it will spring up every time he smells a fart in an elevator, takes a stinky crap, or picks his dog's shit up in the park. It will haunt him for the rest of his life, even if he lives to be eighty, ninety-years-old."
Ben rubbed the scruff on his chin, failing to hold back a grin. "A bit melodramatic, but it does make a kind of sense."
"Just imagine," Jason said in a whisper even though no one was anywhere nearby, "an eighty-something-year-old, addle-brained Brad Kennington interrogating his eldercare nurses, trying to figure out which one of them poured a slurry of shit all over the inside of his car. It will all be worth it, trust me."
Ben shrugged and began mentally psyching himself up for the walk back to Jason's house. He knew it was useless to ask Jason to carry the bucket. He turned to see his friend standing still as a stone. The slack-jawed look on his face was hard to interpret. "What's goin' on, man?"
Jason stood there staring off towards the right corner of Mrs. Miller's house. Ben followed his astonished friend's gaze but saw nothing. Just then Jason shot off toward the side of Mrs. Miller's house. Ben rushed after him.
He whipped around the corner right on Jason's heels and went crashing into the property fence. Jason, seemingly oblivious to his friend's accident, kept running along the narrow path. A few moments later he came jogging back to Ben. "Where did it go? Did you see how big that thing was?"
Ben grabbed a hold of the fence and pulled himself to his feet. Trying not to seem too concerned about the scratch on his arm, he replied, "Uh, no, I didn't see anything. What was it?"
"A world record size frog is what it was. Big as a cat and fast as one too. I know it sounds kinda weird," Jason said with an embarrassed look on his face, "but it was staring right at me. I felt like I was frozen in place for a moment and then it just turned and leapt out of sight."
None of what Jason said made any sense to Ben, but he knew better than to say as much. Jason would see his doubt as a challenge and insist they search every bush, puddle, and swimming pool in the neighborhood until they found it.
"Well... uh... wow. That's a big frog. I suppose one that big could have easily jumped over the fence." Ben mentally kicked himself as soon as the words fell out of his mouth. That too was a sure-fire way to inspire his best friend to waste their entire Saturday looking for some fabled monster frog. He tried to think of something to say that would quell Jason's spastic imagination but was beaten to the punch.
"That's quick thinking. You go round the back and I'll... Oh, gross, what did you step in?"
Ben looked down at his shoes. His brand-new Chucks were covered in a thick, clear as Sprite goop. It shook like jello as it oozed down the sides of his shoes with the sluggish pace of corn syrup.
Jason looked back toward the corner of the house where he saw the frog and then rushed over. He knelt down and turned his head to Ben. "Ah, man, there's a bunch more snot over here. I guess this is what you slipped in. Do you think it came from the frog I saw?"
Ben dipped his head down and spewed his lunch onto Mrs. Miller's lawn.
Seth Cullen, nursing a bad reaction to a bee sting, stayed home from school per the doctor's orders. By some crazy streak of luck, he'd managed to go sixteen years without ever pissing off a single bee only to discover an allergy to the little bastards' sting the night before an important chess match. How several ornery bees got into his room while he was sleeping is a mystery he'll never figure out; bees aren't nocturnal.
Patty Robbinson wasn't all red and swollen like Seth, but she also didn't make it to school that Monday. She laid in bed with her sore ankle resting on a few pillows and cursed her bad luck. Her untidiness, it seemed, had struck again; this time before she'd even managed to get both feet firmly planted underneath her. She literally slipped out of bed that morning. She was certain she'd put her school clothes in the hamper before going to sleep, but the evidence strewn across her floor and beside her bed said otherwise.
Sam Kilner had an early, last-minute doctor's appointment due to an itchy rash that had sprung up while he slept. Most of the rash will have subsided before he discovers the three-leafed culprit under his bed and begins another week-long regimen of pink salve slathered all over his itchy body. How the poison covered sprig got under his bed will be a mystery he'll wonder about for the rest of his life every time he encounters the nasty weed.
Kelly Sacks was late to school that day due to having no clean clothes to wear other than her bathrobe. She had decided to wash everything twice for good measure and passed the time on her laptop while she waited for the handyman to show up. There wasn't a visible stain on her closet ceiling, but a leak seemed like the most plausible explanation for all of her clothes being covered in a disgusting dampness that smelled like a swamp.
These four students all had one thing in common. They had assigned parking spots in the student parking lot. Seth and Kelly parked bumper to bumper on aisle three. Patty and Sam lined up in the same fashion on aisle four. Even though Brad had been one of the last kids that day to park, he failed to notice the lane of empty parking spots that offered his car a straight shot down to the edge of the parking lot.
Jason set the five-gallon bucket beside Brad's SUV. The horrific soup sloshed violently within. A mischievous grin sprouted upon the boy's face. The smile persisted and grew even wider when he saw the sunroof was open.
"Poor, forgetful Brad, you're just too damn predictable," he muttered under his breath as he scanned the parking lot to make sure he was alone. Just then, he spotted something at the edge of the lot sitting on the guardrail. He ducked down and began creeping toward it. "Is it the same frog I saw before?" he wondered. "No, it can't be. This one is even bigger."
When he got to within ten feet of the amphibian, it turned toward him. Jason froze as it leveled its gold eyes upon him. The drop of sweat that rolled off his brow a split-second before stopped right before his eyes, held in place by some unseen force. He stood there in a crouched position, staring past the hovering water drop and right into the giant frog's eyes.
A panic buzzer began to sound in his head just seconds before the frog leapt straight up into the air. With its gaze broken, Jason's sweat dropped to the pavement. He quickly rose up and looked to the sky, but the glare from the sun blinded him from seeing where it might have gone. Just then, he heard the sound of rolling tires behind him.
Jason turned just as Brad Kennington's SUV slammed into him, carrying him the last few feet to the guardrail.
News of the horrific accident at Valley Field High reached Tiffany just minutes before she stepped off the school bus in front of her house. With tears in her eyes, she ran inside, slammed her bedroom door shut, and flopped down on her bed. She buried her face in her pillow and cried like she'd never cried before.
Jason was gone and she never got to say how she felt about him. The pure agony of losing him swept through her body, but a passage from the book came to mind, soothing her.
Death is merely one stepping stone in a wide river with many currents. Those who do not learn to step lightly are doomed to stumble and be swept away. Where they will drift to, none living can know.
As Tiffany reflected on what that meant for Jason and the many others she now understood would die in the coming days, the latch on her bedroom window slowly turned. She slipped off her bed and looked underneath it for the book. She knew every word on its pages by heart, but still, she found comfort in reading it. Where the book had been was nothing but a pile of ashes. She drew a handful out from under the bed and let it sift through her fingers.
It suddenly dawned on her the book wasn't needed anymore. And just like that, she gleaned the final lesson missing from its pages. Nothing infinite holds one single form. Change is not to be feared but embraced.
The book was gone, but just like her memories of Jason, so too would the book's lessons forever reside within her.
Just then, her bedroom window flew up and the screen fell out onto the lawn. She rushed to the window just in time to see two little creatures about six inches tall running off with the window screen held over their heads. Their greenish skin was speckled with black spots, giving them the appearance of frogs, but their limbs and torsos were quite human-like.
Dozens of others just like the little screen thieves appeared in the yard as if instantly willed into existence. They all stared intently at her. Suddenly, something big and sticky latched onto her chin. She swatted it away and leapt back with a blood-curdling scream as a bullfrog nearly the size of a German Shepherd hopped onto her windowsill.
Tiffany recovered her nerve and studied the monstrosity with a dawning realization. Just then, her bedroom door flew open and her mother rushed in. "Sweetie, are you-" The thing on the windowsill turned its large, gold eyes upon her mother, stopping her in her tracks. Tiffany stood there looking back and forth between her mother and the monstrous frog.
She waved her hand in front of her mother's face but received no response in return. Tiffany found inspiration in a scene from Star Wars. She turned her mother around by the shoulders and walked her into the hall.
"You've had a long day, Mom. Why don't you take a nap?" Tiffany walked back into her room and closed the door behind her as her mother slowly walked toward her bedroom.
"Enough," Tiffany commanded, turning to the massive frog in the window. "I know what you are. You're the Mischief." She thought about the portal she had chosen and it all suddenly made sense. "Well, you can stop hiding now."
The frog blinked, extended its vocal sac to the size of its head and then exploded. Great big chunks of clear slime flew in every direction. An extra large blob shot out toward Tiffany, but she directed it away with a quick wave of her hand.
In the frog's place were a dozen or more of those little green freaks. Two hit the wall with loud thumps and slowly slid down it to the floor. Three were lying on the windowsill looking a bit dazed, several scampered under her bed, and a few flew out the window.
She looked up when she heard a creak above her head. Hanging from the ceiling fan was a spotless Mischief a shade of green the color of pond scum. It dropped onto her shoulder and squatted down, looking more frog-like in that position. She smiled and gave it a wink.
It shifted to one side and let rip a fart that smelled like a peat fire. Tiffany giggled mischievously, lowered her hands, and then thrust them toward the window. All the stragglers hopped onto the windowsill and faded from sight. She stepped to the window and saw a thick plume of black smoke rising up from somewhere on the other side of town. A car alarm in the neighborhood started to blare.
"It's begun," she said, "do you think mankind will get it right this time?" Her little familiar extended its vocal sac and let out a short call similar to a cow's moo. Tiffany ran a finger down its slick back. "Yeah, me neither."
Written by Kolpik