Phantasma Non Grata

He introduced himself as Dade, but Margaret didn’t really believe that was his name. She couldn’t put her finger on what it was–he was polite, soft-spoken, and handsome in a boyish way–but she didn’t trust him in the least, and now she rather wanted to return to the picnic. She never should have wondered off.

“My folks will be wondering where I’ve gotten off to. I should probably head back.”

Dade didn’t protest in the least. He didn’t even look in her direction. He just stood at the edge of the creek tossing pebbles underhand into the shallow water. “Have a good time,” he said.

The stones made quiet little plops as they breeched the surface. It was hypnotizing, as soothing as a lullaby, and soon Margaret realized that she’d watched him toss every last stone he’d collected. She stood now watching only his silhouette, as still as a scarecrow in the waning light. She felt a chill creeping its way up her spine.

“I made something,” said Dade. “Can I show you?”

“Okay,” she said, her voice not much above a whisper.

From inside his jacket, Dade removed a short stick, maybe a foot long with a Y shaped end. He walked over, crunching rocks and twigs and scrub brush underfoot, and held it out for Margaret to examine. It was a solid piece of dark, ashen wood, perhaps a tree branch, that had been whittled down and decorated with ornate carvings. The abstract curving lines made her think of magnetic flux lines, or a thicket of rose bushes–something natural and complex and knotted.

“Go ahead,” he said, “take it.”

She did. It fit naturally in her grip.

“What is it?”

“It’s magical.”

Margaret cast Dade a corkscrewed look of skepticism, but he was fixated on the stick, his eyes suddenly wild.

“I want you to keep it,” he said.

She wished she had gone back to her family earlier, and could no longer remember what had compelled her to stay. “I don’t know–”

“Please. It’s a gift.” He guided her opposite arm by the elbow so that she now held the stick with both hands, and then he backed away laughing softly.

“Point it at something,” he said. “Point it at something, and then imagine that it’s gone.”

“What?”

“Go on. Try it!” His voice grew loud, ringing out like an old church bell.

It startled her. She didn’t want to be here. What was she doing?

She pointed the stick at Dade and imagined him gone.

He burst into a cackle that smeared into a piercing scream. And then–

Silence.

There was a short flash like a lightbulb burning itself out, and then he was gone. He hadn’t run away, he’d just…vanished.

Margaret threw the stick as hard as she could into the stream and sprinted back to her family at a pace that made the air feel like napalm in her lungs. But it was too late.

She was marked, now.

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