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The Magician's Price

Annalisa clutched the pillowcase against her chest, but the weight of the candy inside offered no reassurance in the face of the Spook House mansion scowling at her from across the untended grounds.

"S-so, Ronaldo?" She tore her gaze away from the structure, facing the decrepit wrought iron fence that ringed the property. "You guys'll seriously leave me alone if I trick or treat the Spook House?"

Her chunky tormentor poked his head up over the crumbling masonry. "Stop stalling and get up there, Bologna Lisa!" A fresh round of snickering erupted from behind the wall.

"That's not how you pronounce bologna," Annalisa muttered, then turned and started forward. Tree branches rustled overhead as a strong, biting wind sent vibrant yellow leaves skittering across her path. A crow cawed nearby, and Annalisa gripped the pillowcase a little tighter. Ahead, most of the house's paint hung in long strips like half-chewed fingernails, the wood beneath afflicted with a deathly pallor. There was a murky, muddled light in what her HGTV-obsessed mother would've called the drawing room.

She stepped onto the porch, her stomach churning. Looking for a doorbell and finding none, she raised a shaking hand to knock.

Just before her knuckles met the wood, the door swung open.

Annalisa froze as the same murky light from the window washed over her. A figure stood silhouetted in the foyer.

"You'll do." The figure snapped its fingers, and Annalisa cried out as what felt like a giant invisible hand closed around her waist and dragged her over the threshold. The door slammed shut and the invisible hand dropped her onto all fours. Screaming, she scrambled back to the door and started pounding on its rotten wood, screaming for help at the top of her lungs.

"Don't bother," rasped the voice behind her. "Things are ... different on this side of the threshold, heh."

Choking back a sob, Annalisa faced her captor. He looked like the mutant offspring of Doc Brown and Willy Wonka set on a wiry, insubstantial frame.

To her left was the drawing room, empty except for a crow perched in the far corner picking its feathers clean. An anemic fire sputtered and popped within the fireplace.

The man cleared his throat, snapping her attention back to him.

"Who are you?” she asked.

"Not who, mortal, but what.” His smile was wide and strained, as if the gesture was unfamiliar. “I am a magician, and I want to teach you my magic."

“Magicians are people,” she said.

“People come in … mmm … all shapes and sizes, heh.”

Annalisa stepped back. "I'm not into card tricks."

The magician cackled. "I mean real magic. With a thought and a snap, you’ll be able to do anything except meddle with life and death. That has, heh, caused some problems in the past.”

"What's in it for you?"

“Why does there have to be anything in it for me, girl?”

“You called me mortal, for starters.” Annalisa adjusted her glasses. “I’m guessing that means you’ll get some kind of thrill out of this.”

“Got it in one.” The magician shrugged. “Mortals find the pettiest uses for unlimited power. It never ceases to tickle my funny bone. So, there’s that. Oh - and I’ll collect a small fee each time you use it.”

“A fee?”

“Mhm. One week of life.”

“You call that a small fee?!”

The magician bent toward her at an unnatural angle, his smile stretching impossibly further. “Do you want the magic or not?”

Annalisa chewed her lip. Considerable misgivings aside, wouldn’t it be worth a measly week of her life to send a lightning bolt up Ronaldo’s nose?

“I’m in.”

“Excellent.” The magician tapped her forehead with a gnarled finger, and Annalisa abruptly found herself back on the doorstep. The drawing room window was dark. She recognized the scent of sulfur from chemistry class and stepped back from the porch.

Did the spook house have a gas leak? Had the whole thing been a hallucination?

She returned to the gate where Ronaldo and his friends were waiting.

"What gives, Bologna?" he called out as she approached. "You just walked up and stood there!"

Tightening her grip on her pillowcase, Annalisa thought how nice it’d be if, just once, she got the last word on Ronaldo.

As she did, a crow cawed overhead. She glanced up and it cawed twice more, except when the sound reached her ears, it sounded more like “Now, snap!

She did, then curled her nose as she caught another whiff of sulfur. Had some clung to her clothes from the front door?

“Well, Bologna?” Ronaldo asked. Annalisa realized she was standing right in front of him. His goon squad stood all around him, chuckling. “What happened?”

Annalisa smirked. "I realized you’d take my candy whether I played your stupid game or not."

Ronaldo blinked as his bully protocols short-circuited. “You, uh … what?”

Had Annalisa just paid the magician’s price?

Totally worth it.

"Don’t strain yourself," she said. She focused as hard as she could on the image of a pig, then sent the magic into the sack, ignoring the renewed scent of brimstone. "Here - take it."

She thrust her pillowcase into his stomach - maybe just a touch harder than she had to.

“Oomf!”

Annalisa’s smirk widened into a smile so wide it hurt her cheeks.

After that, time seemed to blur. When she jolted awake the next morning, Annalisa had no idea how she’d gotten home.

Then she saw the shadowy figure in her doorway and started screaming.

“Oh, honey!” Her mother stepped into a sunbeam. “I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to startle you!”

Annalisa breathed out a big sigh and rubbed her temples. “It’s okay. Weird dreams, I guess.”

"Uh oh. Too much candy?"

"No. Ronaldo and his goon squad stole mine." Her mother shook her head.

"Believe it or not, they might’ve done you a favor. Your school called this morning. Someone was handing out tainted candy, and that jerk got some of it."

Annalisa blinked. "Tainted candy?"

"Mhm. Ronaldo and his little punk buddies woke up with strange growths this morning." Her mother shrugged. "Apparently, they look like pigs' tails."

Annalisa threw herself back on the bed, laughing. "No way!"

"Yes, way!" Her mother was smiling, too, though she looked a little puzzled. "Not sure if I should feel good about you taking so much joy in their suffering, kiddo.” She winked. “That concludes my after-school special. Back to the real world: my girl deserves some Halloween candy, so I’ll stop and get us some Whatchamacallits after—" She groaned, doubling over as a violent cough wracked her body.

"Mom!" Annalisa threw herself out of bed.

"Whew," her mother said, steadying herself against the doorframe once the coughing fit passed. "Bigtime allergies today. I can’t stop coughing! Come on, time for breakfast."

Annalisa started to follow, then froze as she saw blood spattered on the carpet. Her stomach dropped.

The magician’s price was a week of life.

Annalisa had just assumed it’d be her own.



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