I stare at the potatoes till I’m bug-eyed, but nothing happens.
After a while I reach over and feel them. A little warm, maybe? But still raw.
I can’t do anything right. I throw my textbook against the wall. The practical exam in radiakinesis is in less than two weeks, and if I don’t pass it, I’ll never get into pyrokinesis.
I try again, but I’m interrupted by Kaylee, who bursts into the house like a cyclone, mad as only a sixteen-year-old girl can be. She stomps into the kitchen and brandishes a pencil under my nose like a knife.
“Recognize this, Mom?”
She throws the pencil down on the table. “If you’re going to put friggin’ whacked-out magic pencils in my backpack, could you at least tell me?”
I hate that fake swearing the kids do nowadays. They act like it’s some kind of free pass to be disrespectful to their parents. But it’s hardly the moment to bring that up.
“What happened?” I ask her. “It was supposed to help you on your quiz… Didn’t it work? I was afraid it might be too weak.”
She gives a sniffly little hiccup. “Too weak? It started writing all by itself, Mom. Like, seriously—it wouldn’t friggin’ stop! Off the desk, onto the floor. I had to go after it and practically knocked over two desks trying to grab it. Now everyone thinks I’m a total weirdo freak.”
“Oh dear.” My chest tightens. “Poor Kaylee.” At the same time, I feel a little flicker of excitement. Not too weak, for once, but too strong.
I pick up the pencil, and turn it over in my hand, as if I can see what went wrong just by peering at it. I did the spell by moonlight, just like the assignment said, but perhaps the neighbor’s floodlight interfered. It’s so hard to find any genuine moonlight in the city. Perhaps I could—
“Mom? Are you even listening?”
I look up at her, blinking. “Oh… Sorry, sweetie. It’s just that… well, you were so worried about that quiz.”
“Don’t pretend you care about my grade! I’m nothing but a guinea pig to you anymore.” She plunks down at the table and buries her face in her arms.
I sit down next to her. I rub my neck, trying to think what to say. The thing is, it’s not completely untrue what she’s saying. Part of the assignment was to pass off the bewitched object to an unsuspecting family member, in order to ensure what the teacher called “unbiased results.” I’m a little scared of that teacher. She has a way of leaning in close and baring her teeth, revealing her two gold incisors—the class is on Zoom—and saying things like, “Any objections? If you want to be nicey-nice, go study flower arranging.”
The thing is, I don’t want to study flower arranging. I don’t. But I do worry that I am, at my core, “nicey-nice.” That’s why I picked a spell that was supposed to help Kaylee.
“All you care about are your stupid assignments,” she says into her arms. “You don’t care about me at all.”
“Kaylee Koala. You know that’s not true.” When she’s talking to her friends, you’d swear she was twenty, but with me she acts more like six. According to my sister Natalie, it’s because she feels safe to air her negative feelings. It’s the ultimate compliment, in a way.
I try to stroke her hair, but she flounces away and stands up. She gives me the glare. That means she’s about to leave the room, run upstairs, and slam her bedroom door. But first, the parting shot, which is always most cutting and hurtful of all.
“I liked you better before you started taking those stupid classes,” she says. “You were funner and prettier and everything!”
Yes, it hurts. I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach. She disappears upstairs and I sit, staring at nothing. Then I realize I’m staring at the potatoes.
I feel them. Ugh. Still cold.
I sigh and open her backpack. The pencil wriggles on top of her folders and binder, twitching like a dying insect. I have to do the “Cease and desist” spell three times before it finally lies still.
I pick it up with two fingers and deposit it in the pencil holder, which is a mug Kaylee made for me in the third grade. World’s Awesomest Mom.
Any minute Brian will come home. He’ll look around at the kitchen table strewn with papers, the pan of still-raw potatoes on the counter. The lack of any other dinner preparation. He won’t criticize me. He’s always trying to be supportive. But his eyes will go a little flat, and I’ll know he’s remembering the piping hot dinners of yore.
But I feel too tired to even use the microwave. I end up at the telephone, punching the number of Antonio’s Pizza for the second time this week.
* * *
When I open the door to the pizza guy, he’s peering up at the rafters of the porch roof.
“You got bats?”
“No. I mean… not that I know of.”
He rubs his eyes with one hand. “Nevermind.” He hands me the pizza, turns on his heel, and trots off to his car. I realize he didn’t wait for payment.
His wheels screech as he reverses out of the driveway.
Weird. I never saw a pizza guy rush off like that before. Well, no big deal. I’ll call Antonio’s after dinner and give them my credit card number. We order so often we’re a valued customer these days.
We sit at the kitchen table and start to eat. Brian asks me how my day went.
“So, when do we get to see your first magic show?” His voice is bright and oh-so-casual. “You can’t keep your genius under wraps forever, you know.”
“Yeah, Mom.” Kaylee’s mouth is full of pizza and irony. “When’s your first show?”
“I ran into Herb Bilcourt today,” Brian says. “His little boy’s turning five in June. I didn’t make him any promises, but they’re planning a party. Could be a gig for you.”
“Yeah, Mom,” Kaylee’s voice seems to be permanently jammed on the sarcasm setting. “You could entertain the kiddies.”
Her eyebrows are raised. I know she thinks it’s high time I explain the reality of the situation to her father—that the magic I’m studying is not the pulling-rabbits-from-hats variety. He’s not as perceptive as Kaylee and has been distracted with a big project at work. By now, his misperception gone on so long, I dread trying to correct it. He might even think I was trying to lie to him. Every day I let it pass, not sure I have the energy.
One problem is that he seems to keep hoping I’m going to start contributing to the family finances. And he’s mentioned three times how his friend’s wife got her real estate license and pulled in forty grand her very first year. I pick the pepperonis off my pizza. I don’t really like his friend’s wife. God, that woman is so condescending.
It’s not that I’m against performing kiddie shows, if I ever manage to gain the necessary control. But the instruction’s just not geared that way, and planning for the future has never been a strong point of mine. And I have to admit I’ve absorbed some of the snobbery of my professors and classmates—apparently, it’s not considered comme il faut to use the ancient arts to make a quick buck. Still, I’ll figure something out. The pencil incident has set back my confidence a bit.
Brian eyes the messy stack of textbooks in the middle of the table, next to the pizza box. He sighs and goes to the fridge to get a second beer. That’s when I see a shadow gliding along the top of the stove. Another one drops from the ceiling, plummeting into the narrow crack between the wall and the counter.
I rub my eyes. I haven’t been getting enough sleep lately. Suddenly I remember how the pizza guy rubbed his eyes in exactly the same way.
Brian leans against the counter and takes a swig of beer. I notice he’s fiddling with something in his left hand.
“What’s that?” I ask him.
“Just a fidget cube.”
“But you lost that ages ago.”
He gestures toward the kitchen workstation where I keep my cookbooks and, lately, my study materials. “I found this one in that bottom drawer, where the charge cords used to be. Where’d you put the charge cords? Everything keeps getting switched around.”
I stare at his hand. A prickle starts at the back of my neck.
I jump up to take the cube. It does look a little like the one he used to have, except this one is silky wood, and the pushbuttons are marked with small orange flames.
“How long have you been fiddling with this?”
“Is there a problem?” His eyebrows come together.
“Brian, I put stuff for my classes in that drawer! Things we haven’t gotten to yet.”
He comes back to the table with his beer and plops down in his chair. “I was just borrowing it. You can have it back. Geez.”
I grab one of the thick textbooks from the middle of the kitchen table. Desperately, I start leafing through it. There’s a photo of the cube near the back of the book, in chapter thirty-seven. The description says, The Excalibration Cube is a three-dimensional representation of the interdigitated nature of coincidental universe vestibules.
Ugh—am I supposed to understand this? I flip the page.
“What’s wrong?” Kaylee’s voice is trembling. “Mom, is there a problem? When I don’t respond, her voice rises in pitch. “Why are you acting like this?”
“It’s not like I broke it or anything,” Brian says through a bite of pizza.
Do not attempt to operate this tool until you have read thoroughly and understand completely all instructions and safety rules included in this chapter and appendix Q and R. Keep away from children. Depressing two buttons simultaneously may result in opening vestibules to gremlins (Supernaturalis gremlinus) and may lead to injury or death.
I skip through the various warnings, frantically looking for what we should actually do if faced with gremlins. From the corner of my eye I spot a shadow on the dining room table. I look up to see it flicker into the shape of a mouse-like animal, gray with hot-white eyes. It has too many legs, half a dozen at least, and drags itself by clawed knees. My chest clenches. I’ve never been good with rodents.
The creature lurches toward Brian’s arm on the table. Brian is staring into space, scowling, and doesn’t notice.
It flattens and vanishes into his sleeve.
I scream, overturning my chair. I lunge—but before I can reach him, a shadow bursts from Brian’s collar and leaps to the ceiling.
Brian scowls. “What the—?”
There’s a furious chatter from the ceiling. The creature is hanging by its claws, gray eyes shining and rolling like marbles in their oversized sockets.
Kaylee screams as she and Brian jump to their feet next to me.
Brian’s eyes are bulging with fear. “I’ll call pest control,” he croaks.
Now there are three on the ceiling. Are they getting bigger? Yes, the first one’s big as a rat now.
Somehow I have to fight back.
I grab my textbook under one arm and give Brian and Kaylee a push. “The living room! Go!”
I pull on Kaylee until she moves. We run down the hall to the living room. As we pass the bathroom, a movement catches my eye. Shadows are flickering up from the toilet. So that’s where they’re coming from. Unbelievable.
The living room is still creature-free. I bang the French doors shut behind us, plop down on the floor and start flipping pages.
Brian peers at his phone, still trying to find the number for pest control. He holds the phone at arm’s length because he doesn’t have his glasses.
I read: Gremlins respond to assertiveness: Make clear you possess advanced magical skills and are determined to stake your territory. Avoid fleeing, as that can trigger a pursuit response. Keep in mind they are often hungry. Protect your extremities.
Kaylee screams. A flattened gremlin is coming under the door. I smash the textbook on the creature’s head, and it squeals and vanishes. I feel a surge of satisfaction. At least this book is good for something.
I turn to find Kaylee on the floor, whimpering and covering her head with her hands. Brian’s face is shiny with sweat and his nostrils are flared. He takes a step backward. It’s only a matter of time before more creatures get in.
“Mommy,” Kaylee cries. “Mommy…”
And then I’m filled with white heat—I know it’s up to me. Maybe it’s hearing that long-lost name, from back when she thought I was all-powerful. She would hold out a broken cookie or toy and say, “Fix it,” confident of my powers. I have to try, even if they gobble up my extremities, even if I die.
I open the doors and stride down the hall to the kitchen. But my legs turn to water when I see there are dozens of them now, maybe hundreds, teeming up the walls and across the ceiling. Some are as big as cats. Their hairy, snub-nosed, needle-fanged faces turn toward me.
I grab the doorjamb to steady myself.
Brian has followed me. “Run! Run!” he stammers, plucking my elbow.
But I turn to face the creatures. “Go away!” I tell them, flapping one hand.
They snarl. Some plop to the floor with sickening thuds, like fruit. They move toward Brian and me, squawking and snapping and trampling each other.
“This is my home.” My voice strengthens. “Leave my family alone or I will kill you.”
I have no weapon. All the knives are in a drawer across the room. But I will wring as many necks as I can before they devour me. Before they hurt my family.
“You cannot pass!” Who do I think I am, Gandalf? But it’s working. They stop moving toward me. In fact, they stumble backward.
And then I shriek like a frenzied monkey.
And they vanish! They pop like smoke-filled balloons, one by one, until the only proof they were ever there is their excrement on the walls and floor. It’s going to take forever to clean that up, but I don’t care. Triumph roars through me.
The dish where the potatoes were is empty. Picked clean. But I notice one potato on the floor. I pick it up, toss it into the air, spin and blast it with white lightning. It bursts into flames and falls, smoldering and smoking into the dish.
I turn to Brian. His face is flabby with shock. He looks almost as afraid of me as he was of the gremlins. Kaylee’s tearstained face pokes out behind him.
“Is it safe?” she asks.
Like all parents, Amy Cree wears a lot of hats: pasta chef, taxi driver, spy, and keeper of the Hypocritic Oath. She lives in Arlington, Virginia, where she finds time to write by hiding from her children and other dependent family members. She is currently working on a mystery novel.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “If You Want to Be Nicey-Nice, Go Study Flower Arranging”:
This amusing magic-gone-awry story by author Amy Cree gave us some smiles and was a nice break from some of the heavier pieces we read. There’s no deep message here… Well, maybe there are a couple of takeaways from it: (1) Don’t doubt yourself, and (2) if you’re going to practice magic, make sure you read ALL the instructions, and don’t leave your magic stuff lying around where some unsuspecting person might pick it up.