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Art by Melissa Mead

Newfangled

K. G. Jewell lives and writes in Austin, Texas. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, and a member of the science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers' group Slugtribe.
"No, sir, I don't think your problem is with the fridge elf." I watched the technician bend his thin frame behind the refrigerator as he spoke, flashing his light through the cooling fan into the inner recess of the unit. "He looks pretty happy. He's got himself satellite TV and a case of Fritos. If the writer's strike isn't over when football season wraps up, you might have a problem, but you should be fine in the meantime. He doesn't have a clue about anything going on around here."
I recalled the nametag on the technician's blue coveralls had read "Ed." Ed shifted to his stomach, peering into the inch between the linoleum flooring and the bottom of the refrigerator. "Ah ha! Just as I suspected," he said triumphantly.
"What's that?" I don't know much about supernatural thermodynamics, but his excitement sounded expensive.
"Hand me the eye of newt, will you, Mr. Jones?" Still on his stomach, Ed waved towards his cooler.
I opened the cooler and wrinkled my nose at the contents. The packages in the cooler were all neatly bottled or vacuum-packed, but the labels revealed gruesome contents. Dragon spleen and claw of were-hound sat alongside squirrel-brain and tongue of parrot. One Ziploc was unlabeled, containing what looked to be a ham sandwich I selected the bottle labeled "Eye of Newt" and handed it to Ed.
"And that Ziploc bag, please?"
I watched, intrigued, as Ed opened the sandwich and spread the eye of newt like marmalade across the bread with his pocketknife. He then closed the sandwich, cut off the crusts, and slid it under the fridge.
He stood up, folded the knife, and put the crusts in the garbage can next to the dishwasher. "That should take care of it," he said, wiping his hands on my dishtowel as he spoke.
"What was the problem?"
"The garage ghoul had the munchies, and was angry and hot as all hell at the lack of supernatural sustenance in the house. His heat was overpowering the fridge elf's natural cool."
"But we leave offerings to the ghoul every week!" The directions on the garage opener box recommended such feedings, and I'd followed the directions to a T.
"Well, your son probably should stop stashing his pot in the garage, because it's messing with the ghoul's appetite."
I shook my head. "The kid's never going to learn. When he was twelve he was getting nightmares because they were attracted to the cookies hidden under his bed." Not that I totally understood how exactly this newfangled magic worked, but even I could see the analogy between the present problem and that one.
I took out my checkbook. "What do I owe you?" Maybe I could dock Mark's allowance to cover this.
"With tax the total comes to $1,535." Then again, maybe not. Mark would be in college before he earned that much mowing lawns. I looked at Ed to see if he was joking, but he wasn't. "For a ham sandwich with jelly?"
"That was organic eye of newt from Uzbekistan, and that wasn't ham." He didn't offer further comment on what it actually was, and I decided I probably didn't really want to know.
Ed continued, "If it makes you feel any better, I got here just in time. If the ghoul had gone unattended much longer, more than your fridge would have been on the fritz. The nymph in your cactus tells me the ghoul was talking about heading back to the garage to hit up your car sprite for a ride to the Kwicky Mart. In his state he probably would have totaled your car, too." He waved at the sad-looking pencil cactus in the corner of the kitchen as he spoke. I hadn't even realized it had a nymph.
I sighed and wrote out the check to Coven Incorporated. I remembered the days when a cactus was just a cactus.
As I handed the check to Ed, I asked, "Can you speak to my son Mark about this before you leave? Maybe you can explain how this all works so that it doesn't happen again. He's pretty smart, but he doesn't know much about this stuff."
"Sure, although I'm pretty sure he does know what's going on. You can see the distortion in the force lines from a block away. He's pretty advanced. Thirteenth-, fourteenth-level warlock, I'd say. He'd cloaked his stash with a wiper-snake blanket, but these Chinese ghouls look right past that stuff. He knows it's gone, though, because the spell has been recently recast."
"All right then. Never mind."
I waved Ed out before I knocked on Mark's door. The crash of what I assumed was the latest roche-roca-rock album competed with my fist, so I ended up pounding on the door a little harder than I'd planned.
"Hang on! Just a minute!" The music continued. As my patience wore thin, I considered banging on the door again or raising my voice, but just before I did either, the music stopped and the door opened.
"Hi Dad! What's up?" Mark stood in the doorway, dressed in jeans and the pre-faded t-shirt of some band I didn't recognize. Tanned and mildly athletic, he didn't look at all like the teenage warlocks that were always on the evening news: the cloaked kids with black fingernails and pale skin that had the mayor all upset. The mayor was always launching another taskforce or curfew or something to deal with "those troublemakers."
I tried to put on my serious face. Sixteen years of parenting and I was still in danger of laughing whenever I played the serious parent, but I had gotten better at it. I held up the receipt from the repairman. "Does the phrase 'wiper-snake blanket' mean anything to you, Mark?"
Mark raised his eyebrows and shrugged, the picture of innocence. "What?"
"I just spent an hour with the supernatural thermodynamic repair man because the fridge was on the fritz. He's of the opinion the problem stems from your weed stash. The garage-door ghoul got into it."
"Bejeepers." Mark shook his head. "I told you not to get a ghoul-door. The golem-doors are much more reliable. Those ghouls are tricky. Consumer Reports rated them awful last year."
I adopted a sharp tone. "Mark, don't change the subject. This is not caused by me. This is caused by you. Now, do you want the speech about messing with drugs or the speech about messing with magic you don't understand? I can get cute little pamphlets from your guidance counselor to go with them both."
Mark was a smart kid. He lowered his eyes and looked at the floor, suitably chastened. "Neither, Dad. I'm sorry. It won't happen again."
"Go get your stash." Mark started towards the garage. "ALL OF IT," I emphasized. "And bring the wiper-snake blanket as well."
Mark turned around, "Dad, I can't do that."
"Why not?"
"It's not really a blanket. You know--it's just an idea, a spell. It can't be moved." He clearly was trying to keep his voice from taking on that "you don't know what you are talking about, do you?" tone, but it crept in a little anyways.
"Whatever. Bring the weed." At least I knew what that looked like.
While Mark was in the garage, I looked into his room. He kept his door shut most of the time, so I didn't see inside very often. It looked surprisingly clean. Perhaps suspiciously clean. I thought back on the wiper-snake blanket. If Mark could make a bag invisible, what else could he do?
Mark came back, a small Ziploc in his hand. A lone twist of dried green remained in the bag. "The ghoul cleaned it out. But there wasn't much there, I swear. And it wasn't mine. I was just keeping it for a friend."
I took the Ziploc. "Well, tell your friend we don't keep this stuff in our house. I don't have a prescription and neither do you."
I stuck the bag in my pocket. I'd take care of it later. I pointed at Mark's neatly tucked-in pillows. "You haven't made your bed since you were fourteen. I'm supposed to believe you just started again?"
"I, uh. . ." Mark wasn't as quick on the draw as he had been when he first opened the door. He was clearly debating between digging himself in a deeper hole and cutting his losses.
"Listen, Mark. I'll be the first to admit I don't have a clue about half the stuff going on in the modern magic world. But I wasn't born yesterday and some things never change; one of those is the laziness of teenagers. Now get rid of the wiper-snake or whatever you have going on in this room, or I'll have to call your Aunt Jessica to get this all straightened out." My voice rose a little more. I actually was getting a little mad, although almost as much at myself for having missed his magical involvement as at him for causing trouble with it.
The threat to call my sister Jessica wasn't an empty one. Jessica had always seemed flighty as a kid, but when magic broke big she had made good on her classics training. While my electrical engineering degree had gone instantly stale, she had used her expertise in the distant past as a springboard to the future. She now was a senior executive at some hot defense firm, directing the latest work on the arms race in demon tech. If anyone my age could get to the bottom of this, it would be her.
"No, no, you don't need to call her," Mark said, raising his hand in surrender. "Let me show you something. But let me warn you it might surprise you."
I was pretty sure it would. While I wouldn't be surprised to hear that any teenager these days had tried magic, I was surprised that Mark had apparently gotten pretty deeply involved in it and I hadn't noticed. I guess they're right when they say it's your own kids that surprise you the most.
Mark went in his room and turned up the volume on the stereo. As the music returned, the room shimmered. A rumpled pile of clothes and blankets appeared in place of his pristine bedsheets. The ceiling light also dimmed, the florescent glare replaced by the flickering glow of a dozen candles that had appeared on the floor.
I was about to get mad about wax on the carpet when I realized there were bigger issues afoot--the candles were arrayed on green ribbons laid out in the shape of a happy face. And in the middle of the face, right where you would expect a nose, sat a short creature.
Now, I do not know if this was a gnome or a gremlin or a dwarf or a faerie or an elf, but I do know that it was an ugly little thing. Its dress was sparse, dirty metal bits stuck in rolls of fat. The skin covering that fat was crusty, like dried snot on an old tissue. And its face, well, if a bulldog has a face only a mother can love, this creature was lucky that it probably didn't have a mother.
And I soon learned its mouth was not any cleaner than its dress.
"Marcus! Who the @%!Q#! is this?" The creature screeched the words, pounding its hand on the floor. "And for the third time where's my cannabis offering?" I looked up at my son.
His appearance had changed with the lighting. The candles on the floor danced high shadows on the wall behind him such that his presence loomed in the room. Symbols and patterns rippled up his bare arms in white fire to the beat of the pounding music. Mark pointed at the creature.
"Silence!" His voice vibrated with power. "You will watch your mouth in the presence of my father!"
Mark then turned to me and said in a more conversational tone, or at least as conversational as possible given the background music, "Dad, this is Almgar. Almgar, this is my dad."
I stood in the door, mouth agape. When I was a kid, my parents worried about me hacking into computer systems, not alternate worlds. I tried to recall--did my liability insurance cover summoning?
"Almgar was helping me study. I have a pre-calc exam tomorrow."
Almgar scrambled to his feet, although standing he (it?) was not much taller than sitting. He bowed to me. "Sir! I invoke the obligation of human family! Your son owes me payment for my assistance; you must make me whole on his behalf!"
I raised my eyebrow at Mark.
Mark looked at Almgar. "I told you, the garage ghoul stole your payment. I'll get you something as soon as I can."
"Almgar does not take credit. Don't make me call the sons of Cerberus to collect. Your puny circle of happiness will not halt the hunger of such beasts!"
Mark's voice sharpened again as he said, "Payment will be made when services have been rendered completely to my satisfaction. I will need a final review just prior to my exam in the morning. I release you to prepare for that time." He made a complicated motion with his hand, and the flames flared up, encasing the circle on the floor.
"Payment! Or the Puppies of Purgatory!" the creature's voice shrieked as the flames encased it.
When the flames fell, the circle sat empty. Mark twisted his stereo knob, the lights rose and the room fell quiet. My son once again looked the teenager I was accustomed to.
"Okay, I'm calling Jessica right now." I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket.
"No, Dad, please don't!"
"Why not? She can deal with this, I'm sure. And I really don't want demonic debt collectors around the house." I didn't want any debt collectors around the house, but demonic ones seemed even more trouble.
"Well, um... I was hoping to ask her about getting an internship with her company next summer. If I have to call her for help with a minor math imp, she'll never hire me."
Math imp, huh? Back in my day, we had calculators. And we liked it. "Well, what is your plan, kiddo? Sounds to me like you have about sixteen hours to figure something out." Mark started to reply, but I cut him off with another thought. "And you are not going to go buy more weed. If Almgar has a prescription, he can go to the pharmacy himself."
"Uh... umm... let me Wiki this and see what else is currency in that pantheon." Mark clicked on the computer on his desk. The opening screen chanted something ominous and flashed mystical symbols, but eventually was replaced with a familiar search screen.
Mark typed for a bit, and I studied his shelves. His old comic books and baseball cards took up most of the space, but I noticed a thin black volume with a snake-skin sheen next to a box wrapped in finely tooled leather. I reached for the snake-skin binding and was rewarded by a loud zap and the sharp tingle of electricity running up my arm. I snatched my hand back, shaking off the shock.
"Dad! That's my journal! It's personal!"
"How was I supposed to know that?"
"The runes of personal privacy inscribed up the side. Duh!" Mark's eyes returned to the computer screen, his attention focused on the task at hand. "Okay, Dad. Here's a list of stuff we should be able to use to pay Almgar. Do you have a slide rule?"
I noted the subtle shift to we. Well, he was my son. "Do I look like a dinosaur? No, I don't have a slide rule."
"An abacus of precious stones?"
"No."
"How about a novel and unpublished proof of Fermat's last theorem?"
"Mark, I don't think this is getting us anywhere. Aunt Jessica is not going to disrespect you if you ask for help. It's the mature thing to do."
"Aw, Dad, just give me a little more time."
"Tell me, what will the puppies of Cerebus do if you don't pay in the morning?"
"Ummm... I think it involves pooping inside the house, and maybe peeing on the houseplants."
That didn't sound too bad. Maybe I could let Mark learn from the consequences of his actions.
"It smells awful and is permanent until the end of time."
Or maybe not.
"Ok, you have one hour." I pointed the Forefinger of Parenting at him. That gesture might not be magic, but it had power. Mark nodded. I left, closing the door behind me. The music rose shortly thereafter.
I went back to the kitchen to raid the pantry. I needed to keep my cool; I would take a tip from the fridge elf and eat Fritos and watch Sunday night football.
The Fritos helped, but the game sucked. The Bills needed a miracle to pull out a bad first half, and they clearly had made their sacrifice to the wrong power at half-time. They were getting mowed over, and it wasn't fun to watch.
Mark's hour was up, so I left the Bills to their slaughter and went back to Mark's room. I didn't bother to knock. Mark had blown his privacy rights for the day. I opened the door.
Almgar had returned, this time with a friend. A large, menacing friend. Think Incredible Hulk, but orange, hairy, and not big on washing. Mark was frantically flipping through a book on his desk. The orange hulk was saying, "I don't want any trouble here, you know?"
I backed out of the room before I was seen by either my son or the visitors. It was time to call Jessica.
Her phone went straight to voicemail. "I will be dematerialized in this dimension for the week of the twenty-first. Please leave a message, and I will return it as soon as possible."
Not helpful. I peeked back in the room. The orange creature had left, and Mark was arguing with Almgar.
"You can't just bring other people in here! This is my space!"
"Galik was just making a courtesy call to make sure you weren't going to get behind on payment. He's my boss, and the contract states he can materialize where I materialize."
"Contract? I didn't sign a contract!"
"You accepted the contract when you invoked me. Next time read the fine runes of the invocation." Almgar snorted, strewing purple snot on the carpet.
I swung the door all the way open and re-entered the room. This time Mark saw me and nodded. Almgar continued to speak, pounding the floor absentmindedly.
"Once I learn Linear Algebra, I'll never have to deal with penny-ante pre-calc students like you again. The real money is in college where financial aid covers imps for everyone. If I ever figure out how to factor a matrix, I'm getting out of this gig."
"You want help with that?" I spoke for the first time.
"You know linear algebra?" Mark asked, as if it was astounding that his father knew anything useful at all.
"I do have a degree in an engineering field, even if it is a passé one. Sure, I've got my books down in the basement." I hadn't messed with linear algebra in a while, but some things you never forget. Riding a bicycle, piecewise integration, matrix inversion, you know--the fun stuff.
"Can you teach me the Cholesky decomposition?" asked Almgar.
Maybe not off the top of my head, but I vaguely remembered the process. It was in my textbook. "I could, if it was payment in full for the services rendered my son."
Almgar thumped the ground with his fist, considering the proposal. He stopped the pounding and met my gaze. "I accept your offer. It will require some effort with Galik, but I'm never going to get ahead without that knowledge."
"Ok. I can tutor you on the topic tomorrow night." I turned to Mark. "Can you summon him out on the kitchen table?"
"Sure," Mark replied.
"We'll meet there."
Almgar bowed and disappeared in a puff of smoke.
I turned to Mark. It was time to play dad again.
"Let's put some ground rules in place going forward: I think you should keep me in the loop about your magical escapades. I don't need to know every detail of your private business, but I think I deserve at least a layman's explanation of what's going on around here that might involve another dimension."
"Dad..." Mark threatened to roll his eyes.
"I'm sorry, can you teach Almgar to factor a matrix?"
"No."
"Do you have $1,535 to cover the cost of the ghoul repair?"
"No." Mark lowered his head.
"Then throw an old guy a bone and sell me a clue."
"Okay." It came a little grudgingly, but it was an agreement.
"Now, go study for your pre-calc test. And next time why don't you just ask me for help studying in the first place?"
"Daaad!"
Well, it was worth a try. "Now go study."
Mark nodded and got a serious look on his face. "Dad, Thanks. You saved my butt here--you're the best." He gave me a hug.
I might not know anything about newfangled magic, but I knew something about old-fashioned family. It felt good.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, March 18th, 2011


As with most Science Fiction aficionados, I’m fairly confident in my interactions with modern technology. Nevertheless, given the rapid pace of technological change, I thoroughly expect that someday technology will leave me behind and I’ll be reminiscing on Slashdot with the other geezers about the day when IPs had addresses and the speed of light was a constant.
“Newfangled” coalesced around thoughts on Clarke’s Third Law (Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic), and a vision of the day when I’ll be calling some young whippersnapper for help with some newfangled thingamajig.

- K.G. Jewell

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