Secret Sauce

Prompt: Write a story about someone who receives a present from an unknown sender. What’s the present? Who sent it, and why?

Secret Sauce

 

There were two presents left on the table, both wrapped in the same glittery black paper. Theodore grabbed the larger one and examined the card.

“Yes! This one’s mine!” my twin crowed, struggling to undo the silver ribbon.

I sighed. Black wrapping paper usually indicated a magical present, and as the only family member without a drop of magical blood (weird how DNA works), magical presents were mostly useless to me.

While Theo ripped open his gift, I unwrapped mine carefully. I planned to use the paper for my Kowalski Contest collage. The wrapping came apart easily, revealing a glass flask filled with black liquid.

Melinda and our parents crowded in to see.

“Looks like a potion,” Dad said. He tapped the bottle, which emitted sparks. “Yep. Enchanted glass. Definitely some kind of potion.”

“Why would someone give Danny a potion?” Mom looked puzzled.

Beside me, Theo held his present with a look of disgust. “What am I supposed to do with a sweater?”

Then he turned to me. “Hey, Danny, what did you get?”

“Let me see,” my big sister Melinda said before I could answer, and leaned in. “This looks like Warsaw glass.” Melinda had recently come back from studying abroad in Poland, so she would know.

“Danny got a potion? Not fair! I’m the magical twin.” Theo pointed at the flask. It jumped through the air, but Melinda snatched it back and thumped him on the arm.

“Stop that!” she scolded.

“Ow! Mom, Dad, Melinda hit me. You’re not supposed to hit the birthday boy.”

“Well, you’re not supposed to steal the other birthday boy’s present.” Melinda said, handing the flask back to me.

Theo glowered. “Why did I get a stupid sweater? Whoever gave us these presents must’ve mixed us up!”

Dad was examining the cards. “Doesn’t say what the potion is, or who sent it,” he said. “Shannon, any clue?”

Mom shook her head. “Black is a common color for potions. It could be a healing potion, a flying potion, a potion to cure foot fungus — “

“I don’t have foot fungus,” I interrupt.

“I know, sweetie,” Mom said.

“Wait,” Melinda said. “I’ve been studying potions with Professor Whitesword. Let me try to figure out what it is — if that’s okay with you, Danny.”

I shrugged. Whatever the potion was, it probably wouldn’t work for me, anyway. “Sure, go ahead.” I started gathering the leftover wrapping paper, mine and Theo’s.

“Wait!” Theo said.

I stopped. “What?”

My twin had a crafty glint in his eyes. “If you’re taking that for your collage, you can’t have mine. Not unless you trade me the potion.”

“You can’t trade trash for a potion!” Melinda snorted.

“But the potion is worthless to Danny,” Theo whined. “He’s not magical.”

“You already have several presents, Theo. It’s rude to want Danny’s as well.”

Mo-om,” Theo said.

“Your sister is right,” Mom replied. “Finish your cake and put your presents away, you two. Tomorrow’s a school day.”

“I’ll trade you my sweater for the potion,” Theo pushed.

“Listen to your mother,” Dad replied for me. “This discussion is over.”

Theo grabbed his presents and stomped to his room, leaving his trash. Mom started stacking dishes. Melinda went upstairs, and Dad started for the den.

“Don’t forget your tonic, dear,” Mom said.

“Full moon isn’t for another couple weeks. I have time,” Dad called back.

Mom sighed. “That father of yours. He always waits until the last minute to take his medicine.”

I didn’t blame him. Thanks to Igor Kowalski’s tonic, werewolves like Dad no longer had to shapeshift every month. But I’d gotten a whiff of the tonic once. It smelled like rotten eggs, and by the glum look on Dad’s face every month, it probably tasted like it, too.

I helped Mom clean up, then went upstairs. Theo wasn’t around, which was a good thing. I didn’t feel like talking to him, so I knocked on Melinda’s door.

“Mel, can I come in?”

There was a click, and the door opened. I walked in, and after a moment, the door closed behind me. Melinda was at her desk, wearing her lab coat and goggles. The flask sat beside her. My sister was huddled over her microscope.

“Is that my potion?” I asked her.

“Nope,” she said. “It’s my homework.”

“Oh. Are you going to work on my potion after you’re done with homework?”

“Nope. I already know what it is.”

“You do?” That was fast. It hadn’t taken more than fifteen minutes for me to help Mom wash the dishes. “What is it?”

Instead of answering, Melinda looked past me for a moment.

“What?” I said.

“I can’t believe it’s been twelve years,” she said, nostalgically. “It feels like yesterday I was helping Mom and Dad change your diapers.”

“Gross, Mel,” I said.

“I agree. You two owe me, big time.”

“So…what’s the potion?” I said, trying to change the subject.

Melinda gave me the flask. “It’s smok siku. That means ‘lucky potion’ in Polish. It’s very rare.”

“What does it do?” I asked.

“It brings luck, of course,” Melinda said. “Drink it, and you’ll win your next competition, bet, or contest.”

“I didn’t know they made such potions.”

“They don’t. Not much, anyway. It uses too many rare ingredients.”

“What if someone drank it before playing the lottery?” I asked.

Melinda rolled her eyes. “Kid, there isn’t enough smok siku in the world for anyone to win the whole lottery. Maybe just a couple hundred dollars. But this?” she tapped the glass. “If you were magical, this would probably help you win a small competition, like say, the Kowalski Contest.”

The Kowalski Contest was an annual challenge for students in grades 6–8 to create something — art project, an essay, whatever — in honor of Igor Kowalski, the greatest magical scientist ever.

As a child prodigy, Melinda won the Kowalski Contest three years in a row. In fact, the microscope sitting on her desk was the prize from her third win.

This year, though, the prize was a miniature dragon egg. I wanted to win pretty badly, as did every other kid in school. A pet dragon could help me guard my stuff from Theo.

“You’ve started your project already?” Melinda asked, interrupting my thoughts.

“Yes, I’m doing a collage.” I visualized my half-completed project in my secret hiding place. “Hey Melinda?”

“Hmm?”

“Would the Smock potion help me with the Kowalski Contest at all?”

Smok siku,” Melinda corrected me. “And sorry, kid, but I don’t think so.”

“Because I’m nonmagical,” I sighed.

Melinda nodded. “You could sell it to one of your magical friends,” she suggested.

“Yeah, okay,” I said, muttering: “If I can keep Theo from stealing it, first.”

Melinda observed me for a second. Then she said, “Danny, it’s time for you to stand up to Theo, don’t you think?”

I shrugged. “He is the ‘magical twin,’” I said.

“I wish you’d stop saying ‘magical twin’ as if that made him special.”

“But he can do stuff I can’t do. So can you.”

“You can do stuff we can’t do,” Melinda pointed out. “The rest of us throw away our trash, but you turn it into art.”

I shrugged again. “It’s not as useful as levitation,” I said.

“Pbbt,” Melinda said. “Lots of people aren’t magical. That doesn’t mean they’re less worthy. I can’t make art out of garbage bags. You can. So don’t let Theo walk all over you just because he has one talent you don’t. And don’t let him have the potion.”

Melinda grabbed a book from her shelf and handed it to me. “Read this. It might give you some ideas.”

I looked at it: Saving the Marsh Dragons, by Igor Kowalski. “Thanks Mel, but I’m almost done with my project.”

“You never know,” Melinda said, turning back to her microscope. “The Kowalski judges like contestants who refer to lesser-known aspects of Kowalski’s life, like his environmental work. At least the book has cool dragon pictures. Now go away, please. I have lots of homework.”

:—————:

I’d been in my room two minutes when Theo appeared without warning. “Where’s the potion?” he said.

“Argh!” I fell backwards.

“Like my trick?” Theo looked smug. “I’ve been practicing invisibility spells.”

“Go away,” I said, picking myself off the floor.

“Not unless you give me the potion. You can have this sweater.” He tossed the greenish-gray clothing on my bed.

“I don’t want your sweater.”

“Come on, bro,” Theo whined. “You aren’t even magical! I bet Grandma Tillie sent it. She’s half-crazy already. She would totally mix us up!” Theo’s voice rose.

“Why do you want my potion?” I said. “You don’t even know what it is.”

“Yes I do, it’s a luck potion. Smock-something— ?” Theo froze.

“You were spying on us!”

“So what? I knew you’d never tell me.”

“Because it’s none of your business!”

“Look Danny, if you give me the potion, I promise I’ll let you babysit Killer sometimes.”

“Who’s Killer?”

“My soon-to-be guard dragon. Now hand it over.”

“No.”

“It’s no use to you, anyway. You’re non-magical.”

“Still no. And get out.”

“Thought you’d say that.” Theo gestured with his fingers and my half-finished collage materialized in front of us. He took a lighter out of his pocket and held it to the corner of my project.

“Put that down!” I yelled, wondering how my twin had managed to find my hiding place again.

“First, tell me where the potion is.”

When I hesitated, he set the paper on fire.

“Stop!” I tried to grab my collage, but Theo made it fly about the room, always out of reach.

“It’s under the bed!” I screamed.

“Why didn’t you say so?” Theo let the collage fall. As I stomped out the flames, Theo crawled under my bed and returned with the flask, uncorking it and downing the contents.

Theo’s eyes bugged and his face turned purple as he swallowed. “That was disgusting!” he gasped.

Just then, Melinda burst into the room. “What’s going on? Why do I smell smoke? Theo, did you…?”

“Too late,” Theo said, gloating through his green complexion.

:—————:

Mom and Dad punished Theo by making him give me one of his presents. He gave me the sweater.

I didn’t blame him for not wanting it. As far as sweaters went, this was the ugliest I’d ever seen, made of lumpy, gray-green yarn that smelled like old grass.

So I decided to repurpose it for art. 

As I unraveled the yarn, I thought about how Melinda said the potion would make its drinker lucky, meaning Theo was probably going to win.

But I couldn’t just sit there and let him win without trying. I’d just have to come up with something to try to defeat Theo and the smok siku.

My ruined collage originally highlighted Kowalski’s most well-known accomplishments, like his invention of were-tonic, and discovery of the “magic gene” on chromosome 17.

But everyone knew those things. What would make my entry stand out? 

I grabbed the book Melinda gave me.

Now that I had to start over, I might as well read for inspiration.

:—————:

The winner of the Kowalski contest was announced two weeks later. All the students gathered in the auditorium for the ceremony.

Theo was sitting behind me, sandwiched between Rudy and Lane, his best friends. “Guess what? I’m going to win the Kowalski prize this year.”

“Yeah, right,” Rudy said. “I saw your project. It looked like a kindergartner drew it.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Theo insisted. “I got a lucky potion for my birthday. It was disgusting, but it’s gonna win me a dragon!”

“Really?” Lane said. “Who gave you the potion?”

“Dunno,” Theo shrugged. “And don’t care. I just want that dragon.”

After the principal’s speech, which no one bothered to listen to, Igor Kowalski’s granddaughter, Aneta Kowalski, took the stage.

“My grandfather was a well-known magical scientist, as you know. What many don’t know is that he was also a great environmentalist. It was largely through his efforts that the dragons’ marshland homes were preserved in Poland. In honor of that, we have chosen an unhatched dragon egg as this year’s prize.

“We’ve had many great entries in the contest, but one stood out. This participant addressed Kowalski’s love of nature, and we are very pleased to award today’s prize to…”

She paused for effect, while I glanced at my twin, who was leaning forward in his seat.

“Danny Waters, for his 3D model of a Polish marsh dragon, made entirely out of yarn. We chose this entry not only for its artistry and likeness, but also for the use of material — recycled yarn made of marsh grass from Beibrza, the region that my grandfather helped preserve. Come up here, Danny, to receive your prize.”

Before I could, Theo shot out of his seat. “No! That’s impossible!”

Principal Dean frowned at him. “Theodoric, sit down.”

But Theo kept yelling. “Danny shouldn’t have won! I’m the one who drank the horrible Smock Sickew. I deserve to win the dragon, not Danny!”

“You drank what?” Ms. Kowalski said, her face turning a peculiar shade of pink.

“Smock Sickew,” Theo repeated. “Are you deaf or stupid? Danny’s not even magical–”

Ms. Kowalski cleared her throat. “I think you are mistaken. Smok siku is, uh, dragon urine.”

“What?” Theo stopped short. “No it isn’t. It means ‘lucky potion’ in Polish”

Ms. Kowalski stared him down. “Excuse me, young man, but I am Polish, and smok siku certainly does NOT mean lucky potion. It means dragon pee.”

Now the whole school was looking at Theo. Someone snorted. Someone else giggled. And soon the entire room was laughing uproariously.

:—————:

“How’d it go?” Melinda said when I got home from school.

“I won,” I said, showing her the dragon egg.

“Congratulations.”

“Why don’t you look very surprised?”

“Should I be? You’re the art genius, not me.”

“But Theo drank the smok siku…” I thought of something. “I think you were wrong about the potion, Mel. Ms. Kowalski said it doesn’t mean ‘lucky potion,’ it means — ”

Melinda interrupted me: “Oh, by the way, Danny, I have something for you.” She handed me a paper bag. “You should use this to pad your dragon’s incubation chamber. It’s made of enchanted marsh grass I got from Poland. If your dragon hatches in it, he’ll be loyal to you for life. Theo can’t steal him from you.”

“Thanks, Mel,” I said.

“Go on, go set up your incubator.”

I took Mel’s present and started for my room. The greenish-gray yarn-like material inside the bag looked awfully familiar. I stopped and turned. “Melinda?”

“Yes, kiddo?”

“Where’d you say you got this?”

“Poland,” she said. “When I was studying in Biebrza last year.”

I looked at the bag. Then I looked at my sister. “That wasn’t really dragon pee in my potion, was it?” I asked, a smile starting to creep over my face.

Melinda gave me an innocent look. “I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.” 

Just then, Dad hollered from downstairs: “Does anybody know what happened to my tonic? I thought I bought a new bottle last month, but now it’s empty.”

Melinda and I looked at each other. I raised an eyebrow. “No comment,” she said.

:—————:

Melinda and my parents were with me a few weeks later when my dragon hatched, snuggled in his green-yarn bedding. (Theo was sulking in his room).

My dragon was pink and a little damp, and I watched in awe as he unfolded his wings and yawned.

“What are you going to name him?” Dad asked.

“Hmm. How about…Smock?” I caught my sister’s eye and smiled.