The candy jar was crushing my brother’s hand.
“When will he get here?” Todd whimpered. In the conflict of magical glass vs. college sophomore, the glass was winning.
We sat in the corner of my bakery, the Snackdragon, and I patted his back. “Soon.”
The town of Calder was prone to strange events. Fully furnished basements appeared under houses, fresh loaves of bread popped up in our mailboxes every third Tuesday, etc. When all the cats within town borders vanished this summer, we’d finally hired a full-time magical investigator.
The door swung open and a serious, square-jawed man stepped in. “Afternoon, Ms. Aimes. How long has he been trapped?”
I’d avoided Wick Carry for the three months he’d been in town. I’d heard he was a human dampening field for magic: if he came to your house on a third Tuesday, your mailbox would be bread-free.
I hadn’t wanted him to dampen my low-level baking magic or to deactivate Grandma’s candy jar. I could make a living for myself and Todd with sales from the Snackdragon, but I couldn’t pay Todd’s tuition or buy a new transmission for my jeep without the jar’s help.
It was different now. I’d destroy the thing with my own two hands if it released my brother.
“Two hours,” I said as Wick approached and examined the jar.
“Red opaque glass,” he noted. “Origin?”
Todd winced. “Pretty sure grandma bought it from a dollar store forty years ago.”
Wick lifted Todd’s arm, which was bizarrely jammed forearm-deep in a six-inch-tall jar.
He pressed a finger against the lip of the jar, then turned to me as if he was cross-examining a suspect. “Ms. Aimes, you’ve got at least a level five artifact here, meaning it’s capable of serious physical damage. Why don’t you tell me what this thing does and why it attacked your brother.”
“It didn’t attack,” I said, feeling insulted. “That’s a blessing jar. Grandma always pulled candy out of it just by wishing, and it was her last gift to me.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Last Gifts are potent.”
“This year, I started reaching my hand in when I needed money.” I nodded toward my brother. “He figured out that the jar answered requests, so he stuck in his hand and asked for a car.”
“And it gave him one,” Wick said, shaking his head. “He just didn’t know that asking for something that wasn’t palm-sized would warp the magic of the jar. Right now, his hand is being pulverized by two thousand pounds of metal pressed against bespelled glass.”
“Three thousand,” Todd wheezed, head down on the table. “I asked for a Lamborghini.”
“I hit the jar with a claw hammer,” I said. “Not a dent.”
“There’s only one method to release its grip,” Wick said. “Return the Last Gift. Where is your grandmother buried?”
“Why does it not surprise me that this town has a catacombs,” Wick muttered as he shined his flashlight in front of us.
“It was a graveyard.” I supported my lanky brother as we walked down the dry underground trail. “Ten years ago it turned itself into a catacombs.”
“Ten years ago.” Wick’s voice echoed. “And Calder waited until this year to hire a magical investigator?”
The ground felt unstable and I tripped, nearly falling over with Todd. “We figured we could manage.”
“Until we lost the cats.” Todd’s voice was strained. “You need to find those cats, man.”
The tunnel we were walking down shifted to the left. There was no denying it. I looked to Wick, who leaned closer and lowered his voice.
“Ms. Aimes, I should mention that Last Gifts don’t want to be returned. And a magical environment will try to prevent us from giving it back.”
Todd groaned and the tunnel shifted again, feeling like a small earthquake.
“Mr. Carry,” I said, “you’re welcome to go home, now. I’m going to save my dumb brother’s arm, with or without you.”
He responded by wrapping an arm around Todd’s left side. “You lead the way, I’ll drag him if I have to.”
I began jogging ahead, turning on my phone’s flashlight, trying to find our family crypt before it was too late.
A right turn. Rocks fell from the ceiling. Behind me, Todd panted as Wick hurried him along.
“Nothing looks familiar,” I called. Glancing around, I saw that the catacombs had morphed from plain stone into cobbled walls crammed with rotten human bones.
“Defense mechanism,” Wick said. “It’s trying to scare you. This isn’t real. Focus! Find your grandmother.”
I closed my eyes and remembered peppermint candy. Dandelions on the dinner table. Faded pink house shoes.
Then I knew.
“This way.” I dashed down a narrow hallway with Todd and Wick behind me, running awkwardly. Ahead, I saw the Aimes crypt.
More rocks fell from the ceiling and the passage began narrowing.
“Grandma’s left-center!” I yelled, flattening myself against the wall so they could squeeze by. “Jump!”
In a whirl of motion, Wick dove toward the left-center crypt, pushing Todd ahead of him as big chunks of rock and sand fell around them.
I coughed and blinked in the cloud of dust and debris. I couldn’t see anything for a minute.
“Todd? Mr. Carry?”
I lifted my phone and saw that the catacombs had returned to normal. Plain stone, no bones, no fallen rocks. My brother was there, leaning against Grandma’s coffin, his free arm bruised green-yellow like it was already healing, and no candy jar in sight.
Todd wrapped me in a quick hug and I smiled at Wick over Todd’s shoulder.
“Don’t mention it,” he said, exhaling deeply. “Hey. I know that candy jar was your side income — sorry I destroyed it.”
“It’s all good. I’ll just get a second job.”
Wick tilted his head. “Ever consider investigative work? I’ll need backup if I’m ever going to find those cats.”
Meadow Tyler grew up in Alabama, got her MFA in Creative Writing from Vanderbilt University and decided to move abroad. She is now enjoying her fifth year of teaching English in South Korea, home of the world’s best barbecue. In her spare time, she works on her novel, makes decoden phonecases and reads Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia in Korean.