Secret Sauce

There were two birthday presents left on the kitchen table. They were both rectangular and wrapped in the same glittery black paper. Beside me, 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 indicates a magical present, and as the only member of the family without a drop of magical blood in my veins (weird how DNA works out), magical presents are pretty much useless to me. Most of my presents are wrapped in green, white, even the occasional pink (courtesy of our big sister Melinda).

While Theo ripped open his gift, I unwrapped mine, taking care not to tear anything. I planned to use the paper for my Kowalski Contest collage. The present was small, and the wrapping came apart easily. There, in my hand, lay a glass flask with a cork stopper, filled with black liquid. What in the world?

Melinda and our parents crowded in to see.

“Looks like a potion,” Dad said, raising an eyebrow. He tapped the bottle, and it emitted sparks. “Yep. This is enchanted glass. It’s definitely some kind of potion.”

“Why would someone give Danny a potion for his birthday?” Mom looked equally puzzled.

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

Then he looked over at me. “Hey, Danny, what did you get?”

 “Let me see,” Melinda said before I could answer, as she grabbed the potion from me. “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 should get a potion. I’m the magical twin.” Theo pointed at the flask in Melinda’s hand. It jumped through the air, but before Theo could close his fingers around it, 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, either.” Melinda said, handing the flask back to me.

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

Dad was looking at the tags that came with the presents. “It doesn’t say what the potion is, or who sent it,” he said. “Shannon, do you have any clue?”

Mom looked at the tag. “No, this handwriting is unfamiliar.” She looked at the potion in my hands. “Black is a common color for many potions. It could be a healing potion, or a flying potion, or a potion to cure foot fungus—“

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

“I know, dear,” Mom said, looking at me. She started to uncork the flask.

“Wait, Mom,” 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.” She added, looking at me.

I shrugged. No matter what the potion was, it probably wouldn’t work for me, anyway. “Sure, knock yourself out.” I started gathering the leftover wrapping paper, mine and Theo’s.

“Wait!” Theo said.

I stopped cleaning. “What?”

He was looking at me with a crafty light in his eyes. “Why are you collecting my wrapping paper?”

“Because I always do.”

“If it’s for your collage, you can’t have it. Not unless you trade me the potion.”

“Oh, for goodness’ sake!” Melinda snorted. “You can’t trade worthless trash for a potion.”

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

“You already have a present. Several, in fact. 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, both of you. Its nearly bedtime, and tomorrow’s a school day.”

“What if I trade you the sweater for the potion?” Theo said.

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

Theo gathered his presents and stomped to his room, leaving his trash behind. Mom sighed and started gathering the dishes. Melinda went upstairs, and Dad started for the den.

“Don’t forget your tonic, dear,” Mom said to his retreating back.

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

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

I didn’t blame him. Before Igor Kowalski invented were-tonic, werewolves like Dad were forced to shapeshift once a month during the full moon. Thanks to Kowalski’s tonic, they no longer had to worry about that. But the tonic tasted awful. I’d gotten a whiff of it once, and nearly gagged. It smelled like rotten eggs and raw sewage, and by the glum look on Dad’s face every month near the full moon, it probably tasted like it, too.

I helped Mom clean up our leftovers, then went upstairs to drop off my presents in my room. Theo wasn’t around, which was probably a good thing. He’d be bugging me about the potion all night, I knew. I didn’t feel like talking to him, so I knocked politely on Melinda’s door.

“Mel,” I said, “can I come in?”

There was a click, and the door opened. I walked in, and after a few seconds, the door closed behind me. Melinda was seated at her desk, wearing her lab coat and goggles. The flask sat on the desk beside her, sealed. My big sister was huddled over her microscope, examining something.

“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 ten minutes for me to help Mom clean up and wash the dishes. “What is it?”

Instead of answering, Melinda looked at me for a long moment.

“What?” I said.

 “I can’t believe it’s been twelve years,” she said, a little nostalgia creeping into her voice. “It feels like just yesterday I was helping Mom and Dad change your diapers.”

“Gross, Mel,” I said.

“I agree. You two owe me, big time.”

“So…what kind of potion is it?” I said, trying to change the subject.

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

“What does it do?” I asked, turning the potion in my hands.

“It brings luck, of course,” Melinda said. “Drink it, and you will win the next competition, bet, or contest you enter.”

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

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

“What if someone drank it before playing the lottery?” I asked, just for curiosity’s sake.

Melinda rolled her eyes. “Kid, there is not enough smoc moczu in the world for anyone to win the whole lottery. Maybe just a couple hundred dollars. But this here?” she tapped the glass. “If you were a magical, this would probably help you win a school-wide competition, like say, the Kowalski Contest.”

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

As a child prodigy, Melinda won the Kowalski Contest three years in a row. She was the only student in the history of Kowalski Middle School to do so. 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, I bet. A pet dragon could help me guard my stuff from Theo.

“Do you have an idea already?” Melinda said, interrupting my thoughts.

“Yes, I’m doing a collage on Kowalski’s life.” I mentally visualized the half-completed collage in my secret hiding place. The entries were due in a week, so I needed to hurry. “Hey Melinda?”

“Hmm?”

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

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

“Because I’m nonmagical,” I said with a sigh.

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

“Yeah, okay,” I said, muttering under my breath “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. “You have an incredibly talented eye. The rest of us toss away our trash, but you save it and turn it into works of art.”

I shrugged again, feeling a little abashed at Melinda’s praise. “It’s not as useful as levitating objects,” I said.

“Pbbt,” Melinda said, blowing at her bangs. “Who cares? I can’t make art out of garbage bags. You can. Look, there’s plenty of people who don’t have magical talent. That doesn’t mean they’re less worthy than those who can. I bet a bunch of your classmates are nonmagicals, too.”

Melinda was right. In my class of 30, nine of us were nonmagicals. We were in the minority, but at least we had each other.

“You see, Danny? Don’t let Theo walk all over you just because he has one particular talent and you don’t. You have your own strengths.” Then she leaned closer and said in a lower voice: “And don’t let him have the potion.” She grabbed a book from her shelf and handed it to me. “Read this. It might give you some ideas for the competition.”

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

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

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

“Argh!” I choked, falling backwards.

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

“Go away, Theo,” I said as I picked myself off the floor.

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

“I don’t want your sweater.”

“Come on, bro,” Theo said, a whine creeping into his voice. “You aren’t even magical! Whoever gave it to you probably made a mistake. I bet you it was Grandma Tillie. She’s half-crazy already. Only she would do a fool thing like mixing us up!” Theo’s voice rose, his anger apparent.

“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…Smock Machu? Macho—?” Theo froze.

“You were spying on us!” I accused.

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

“Because it’s none of your business!”

“Look Danny, if you give me the potion, I promise I’ll let you babysit Killer once in a while.”

“Who’s Killer?”

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

“No.”

“It’s not going to be any use for you, anyway. You’re non-magical.”

“Still no. And get out.”

“I thought you’d say that.” Theo gestured with his fingers and my half-finished art 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 said, frantic, wondering how my twin had managed to find my secret hiding place yet again.

“First, tell me where you put the potion.”

When I hesitated, he set the paper on fire.

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

“It’s under the bed!” I finally screamed.

“Why didn’t you say so in the first place?” Theo said, letting the collage fall to the ground. As I stomped out the flames, Theo crawled under my bed and returned with the flask, uncorking it and downing the contents immediately.

His eyes bugged out and his face turned purple as he forced himself to swallow. “That was disgusting!” he said, finally, gasping.

                Just then, Melinda burst into the room just then. “What is going on in here? Why am I smelling smoke? Danny, did Theo try something…?”

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

                Mom and Dad punished Theo for stealing my present. Theo had to 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 one of the ugliest ones I’d ever seen, made of lumpy, gray-green yarn. It smelled funny, too. Like old grass.

So I decided to repurpose it for art. As I unraveled the yarn, I thought about the potion. Melinda said it would make its drinker lucky. Which meant Theo was probably going to win. But I couldn’t just sit there and let him take the prize without trying. I’d just have to come up with something even better than a collage to try to defeat Theo and the smoc moczu, that’s all.

My now-ruined collage originally highlighted some of Kowalski’s most well-known accomplishments, like his invention of were-tonic, and his discovery of the “magic gene” on chromosome 17. But everyone knew about those things. What else did Kowalski do that was noteworthy? What would make my contest entry stand out? I stood up and took the book Melinda gave me. Now that I had to start from scratch, I might as well read for new inspiration.

                The winner of the Kowalski contest was announced at the end of the school year, two weeks later. All of the students gathered together in the auditorium for the ceremony.

                Theo was sitting behind me, sandwiched between Rudy and Lane, his two 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.”

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

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

                “I don’t know,” Theo shrugged. “And I 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 all of 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, thereby ensuring the preservation of the dragon species. In honor of that, we have chosen as a prize this year, an unhatched dragon egg.

                “We have had many great entries in the contest, but this year one particular entry stood out. This participant addressed Kowalski’s love of nature and beasts, 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 incredible likeness, but also because of the use of material—recycled yarn made of marsh grass from Beibrza, the very region that my grandfather helped preserve. Come on up here, Danny Waters, to receive your prize.”

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

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

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

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

                “Smock Macho,” Theo repeated. “Are you deaf or stupid? You mixed us up just like Grandma Tillie did—“

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

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

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

                By now the whole school was staring at Theo in shock. Someone snorted. Someone else giggled. And pretty soon the entire room was laughing out loud.

                “How was the competition?” Melinda said when I got home from school.

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

“Congratulations.”

                “Why is it you don’t look very surprised?”

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

“But Theo drank the smoc moczu…” I thought of something. “I think you might have been wrong about the potion, Melinda. 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 small 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. There’s no way Theo can 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. Suddenly, I stopped and turned around. “Melinda?”

                “Yes, kiddo?”

                “Where did 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 piss in my birthday potion, was it?” I asked, feeling a smile start to creep over my face.

                Melinda gave me a wide-eyed, innocent look. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

                Just then, Dad hollered from downstairs: “Does anybody know what happened to my tonic? I could’ve sworn I bought a new bottle just 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 had gone into his room to sulk. My dragon was pink and a little damp, and I watched in awe as he unfolded his wings and looked me in the eye.

                “So, what are you going to name him?” Dad asked.

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

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