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MaryLin's Special Brand of Magic

Marina J. Lostetter's original short fiction has appeared in venues such as Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and Flash Fiction Online. Originally from Oregon, she now lives in Arkansas with her husband, Alex. Marina enjoys globetrotting, board games, and all things art-related. She tweets as @MarinaLostetter, and her official website can be found at lostetter.net.

The magic appeared in 2019, when a rogue comet performed an impossible loop-de-loop while passing Earth. The strange astrological phenomenon was a sign, a sigil, a portent--or perhaps just a pretense. Whatever it was, the day after, millions of people around the world awoke to find themselves blessed--or cursed--with magical abilities. The magic appeared random, with no rhyme or reason as to why some people had received powers when others had not. Worse, the majority of the new warlocks, sorceresses, alchemists and whatnot couldn't pin down the rules to their particular brand of hocus-pocus before things got out of hand.
Luckily, MaryLin wasn't like most people. She'd figured out her place in the new world right away. Having been raised by a professional poker player turned semi-professional con man, she'd learned early on: find an angle. All you need to survive is an angle.
Well, she'd found her angle, and her powers had become the most desired around.
Her brand of magic was... unique.
After a harrowing morning spent with one of the last surviving fire users (most of those cursed with fire/flame abilities had been eliminated in the early days of magic via spontaneous human combustion), MaryLin now stood on the unkempt front lawn of a split-level ranch. Judging by the noises coming from inside, this had to be the place.
The racket reminded her a bit of Bill's Pub on a Saturday night, back when she was a kid. Her dad used to take her there all the time. He made her sit in the car while he "worked."
Work, she'd figured out later in life, was not synonymous with "scam."
She dialed the call-back number on her cell. Calling to announce her arrival was a thousand times safer than ringing the doorbell--she'd been bitten twice by sentient buzzers. After two rings, someone picked up. "Hello? Yes, I'm from MaryLin's Enchantment Removal, I--uh--YES. THAT'S WHAT I SAID. OK, I'M COMING IN."
Hanging up, she approached the door and gingerly turned the knob.
Inside, it sounded like thirty people were trying to talk over each other at once.
"Mrs. Kurr?" MaryLin yelled, throwing her hands over her ears.
A squat, older woman--her glasses askew and grey curls a-bouncing--came rushing forward with all ten fingers clasped over her mouth.
It didn't take MaryLin more than a few moments to assess the situation. "Voice magic? Propagating uncontrollably?"
She received a pleading nod in answer.
Replicating problems could be tricky. Sometimes it was just a matter of deleting--in a sense--each iteration. In other cases she needed to find the magic equivalent of a reset button.
The woman pried her fingers from her lips and slowly opened her mouth. No sound escaped her, but a new voice--from another room--called out, "I can throw my voice, but now it won't come back! And it's never attached itself to so many things before."
"Can you show me the first item you enchanted?"
Mrs. Kurr led her past the kitchen, where a single plate of half-eaten toast still rested on the counter. The smelly trashcan was overflowing with takeout boxes and microwaved dinners for one.
Beyond that, down the hall, was a bedroom. The door was open a crack, revealing a king-sized bed, mussed on one half.
Finally they reached the living room, where the décor screamed hobbyist. Needlepoint. So much needlepoint.
Between the embroidered artwork--and in a few cases, under it--were family photos, most of them at least a decade old. Pictured were Mrs. Kurr, two teenagers, and a distinguished man in uniform. On a mantle rested a triangular shadowbox, which housed a crisply folded flag.
Mrs. Kurr pointed accusingly at a porcelain peppershaker, shaped like a cat, that sat next to the shadowbox.
"As I was saying," said the shaker, "did you know that Anita Lazzaro down the street has had a new man in and out every--"
"That's not what I heard!" yelled the telephone.
"That's right, it's not Anita, it's Antonio," insisted a tea-stained coaster.
"No, no, she had it right. Or did she?" dithered the coffee table.
Having a dad who spoke out of both sides of his mouth had taught MaryLin to keep a close eye on little, personal cues. Everyone has a tell, went the old card-shark's cliché, and it was true.
Mrs. Kurr's eyes were sad--deeply sad. On her pale finger rested a modest band of gold, scratched and dented from years of prolonged wear.
MaryLin understood why the magic had gotten out of control. "When did your husband die?" she asked smoothly, turning over the peppershaker. Mrs. Kurr's eyes widened, and all of the voices skipped a beat. "Don't answer, I'm sorry."
Definitely looking for a reset button. Better aim for the larynx.
"Ma'am, first I'm gonna eliminate these enchantments. Stand in front of me--hands down, please--tilt your chin up. More. More." MaryLin made a fist, then paused. "You did sign those liability papers? Good."
The woman opened her mouth once more, and the left-most sofa cushion asked, "What are you going to--?"
"I'm sorry. This is going to sting," MaryLin prefaced, before punching Mrs. Kurr square in the throat.
The woman stumbled back, sputtering. All of the voices let out a collective shriek, then fell silent. MaryLin helped Mrs. Kurr--whose gaze could have melted bricks--to the couch.
Poor thing was lonely. MaryLin could understand that. Sometimes people lost touch. Sometimes people passed away. And sometimes children got snobby and thought they were too good for their parents.
"No need to thank Me." said MaryLin. Mrs. Kurr made to protest, but the blow was still working its special magic. "Now, on to prevention. One, call your children. Every week--they'll answer eventually. Two, get a pet. I'm guessing Mr. Kurr was allergic, but that doesn't matter now. Three, there's a school twelve blocks from here: volunteer. If you do these things, you shouldn't have any more magic problems, and I won't need to reset you again, understand?"
Mrs. Kurr nodded eagerly.
"All right, then. You can expect a bill in three to seven days. I mean it now--pick up the phone. You've got to stop talking to yourself."
Mrs. Kurr had probably lost her husband long before the comet had done its summersault in the sky. The woman was lonely, so her magic simulated company.
The secret to MaryLin's magic was that she had no magic--she just knew people. She'd guessed early on that those who had developed magic had manifested powers they thought they needed.
MaryLin did her best to show them they didn't need magic to make their lives feel full. She ferreted out whatever it was they were really missing, and gave them a helping hand in the right direction. Sometimes that helping hand was a punch to the throat, but what could you do?
As she left Mrs. Kurr to contemplate the merits of extroversion, MaryLin realized this was the first time a client had helped her.
The woman's kids were ignoring her. Just like she'd been ignoring her dad as of late.
Her old man might have been a charlatan, but he'd taught her everything she knew about reading people. She wouldn't be out here helping others if it weren't for him.
Traipsing across the lawn, back to her car, she pulled out her phone once more. "Hey, yeah, Dad? I know it's been a while, sorry about that. Do you want to get a bite, maybe?" She smiled. "Yeah, I've missed you, too."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, August 14th, 2015

Author Comments

I originally wrote "MaryLin's" in 2013 for a motivational flash-fiction contest held by one of my writer's groups. One of the prompts was "The phone's ringing. Ring ring ring. You shouldn't pick it up--you KNOW you shouldn't--but you can't stop yourself...," which I latched onto right away. I envisioned a character getting a panicked call from someone whose magic was out of control, and the story evolved from there. After the contest, I knew the story needed something more. It felt a bit flat, but I couldn't put my finger on what kinds of edits I needed to make. So "MaryLin's" sat quietly on my hard drive for years until I realized its "heart" was in MaryLin's relationship with her father--something I'd known as backstory in 2013, but hadn't really had room for given the word count constraints of the contest. Once I figured that out, I fixed 'er up and sent 'er off. Luckily Jonathan and Michele liked what I'd done with the piece.

- Marina J. Lostetter
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