Magic Vs. Money: Part Eight
Epilogue: An Empty Home
After explaining to Talya that everything was going to be okay and assuring her that they would see each other again, Sophie went home. It was possibly the longest walk she had ever taken. She couldn’t shake from her mind the thought that Mr. Mogul had won. He wasn’t supposed to win. He was the bad guy, wasn’t he? He’d been nice enough about it, but only because he could afford to be nice, not because he really felt he needed to be. It all amounted to buying them off anyway. In the end, even she had given in because – and this was the part she hated to think about the most – she had been afraid of him. He was a fat, greedy, small-minded businessman, but seeing him there, with his bodyguards and personal wizard, disarmed and thinking of what he could do to her and her friends if she had fought, she’d been afraid to stand up to him in any meaningful way. The only thing she could think to console herself was that at least she’d made sure that Talya was safe. It wasn’t much, but maybe it was enough. And, if nothing else, Sophie told herself that she would not give in so easily next time.
She also doubted very much that there would be a next time; Mr. Mogul was a careful man and he wouldn’t leave himself open like this again.
As she trudged through the swamp, her foot slipped off the path into the mud and sank in deep, holding tight and causing her to stumble. Muck splashed all over the front of her dress and her hat fluttered away to land at the base of a tree a small way off. Frightened bugs took flight at her crash. Cursing under her breath, she stood back up and pried her foot out of the mud. It made a flatulent sucking sound as it came lose that gave her the irrational, but distinct impression that the swamp itself was mocking her. She stomped over to where her hat lay, feeling tears building up in her eyes. As much as she didn’t want to, she found herself crying in her frustration at her own weakness as she reached down and picked up her hat. Leaning her dirtied face against the tree, she wept openly, pounding her fist against its trunk. She had no idea how long it was before she could regain her composure, but her eyes were red and burning by that time. Wiping them on her sleeve, she sniffled a final time and went on.
The sight of her rundown shack brought her no comfort either. Its front looked like a face frowning in disappointment, its dark eyes drooping sadly, unwilling to look at her. Her ears fell flat against her head and she felt herself starting to cry again.
“Stop that,” she told herself, slapping her own face. “This isn’t your fault. You did everything you could have done. You don’t have to feel bad about it.”
Maybe that was true, but she still did.
She climbed the creaking steps of her front porch, feeling as if her feet had lead weights attached to them. She paused at the door for a second, then entered.
“I’m home,” she said brokenly to the emptiness.
Her meowclops looked up from where it was sleeping on the chair, momentarily excited that its owner had come home, then realized her mood. It hopped down off the chair and wandered over to her, mewing curiously. Sophie glanced down at it as if she had never seen the thing before. It leaned up against her dirty dress and began nuzzling her leg, its mew now mournful and pleading. Sophie kneeled down beside it and scratched it behind the ears, but there was no enthusiasm in the gesture. Despondently, the animal turned away and went back to the chair, eyeing her sadly. Sophie removed her hat and put it on the rack, but missed the hook. She watched it fall to the floor and stared silently for a moment, then reached down, picked it up and put it back on the rack.
Sophie’s first thought was to try and forget about it and go back to her normal routine. She went to her workbench and looked at her list of things to do; the ingredients to be gathered, the potions to be made, chores to complete. She lit the fire under her cauldron with her wand, then grabbed a root off the shelf and began slicing it up. For a moment, she managed to distract herself from her thoughts, but as she went to her cauldron to dump them in, the silence ate at her. And in the silence, came other thoughts. One in particular that rose unbidden was something Danil had said earlier. Aren’t you just the same with your magic? With no one to deny the accusation, she had to wonder about it. She didn’t want to believe that there might be any similarity between her and Mr. Mogul, but the more she thought about it – and she couldn’t stop thinking about it – she began to wonder if Danil hadn’t been right. All the people who had ever come to her hut, whether they meant to or merely stumbled on it by accident, she’d always just driven them away. Since she’d had magic, she’d used that to scare them off if they wouldn’t leave her alone. Perhaps that wasn’t the same as Mr. Mogul, who simply tried to buy everything and everyone who got in his way, but it didn’t seem all that better.
She glanced back at her workbench, where the jar with Mr. Mogul’s transformed security guard sat. The grub was curled up in a hopeless little ball awaiting whatever end she felt he deserved. She held his fate in her hands, just as Mogul had held the fate of the Winters family in his. She went over to the workbench and picked up the jar. The grub looked up at her, terror in its buggy red eyes. Sophie took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
Taking the jar outside, she unstopped it, plucked the grub out and laid it on the porch. With a wave of her wand, Don reappeared in a flash of light and a puff of smoke. The Elephante stared at himself a moment, then began running his hands over his arms and legs and body, as if to make sure they were all there. Then he looked at Sophie, a dozen questions he was too afraid to ask lurking behind his eyes.
“Go on,” she said sullenly. “Go home.”
Don stood as if paralyzed from the shock.
“Should I . . .?” he started, but left the question hanging.
“Just go home,” Sophie said. “It doesn’t matter now.”
“Then . . .?”
“I said get out!” Sophie shouted, her frustration boiling over in anger quickly enough that it shocked even her. She took a moment to calm herself, then said, “Just go home. Make sure I don’t hear of you getting involved in anything like this again, or I might just change my mind about letting you go.”
Don nodded fearfully, then ran off toward the town. Sophie watched him crash through the brush and mud until he was out of sight beyond the trees before going back inside, thinking about her decision. After all she had done, the way she had treated so many others – she tried not to think of the countless other bugs in her swamp who hadn’t always been bugs, but the thought came anyway – did releasing one security guard really change anything? Did it really mean that she was somehow better than Mr. Mogul? Being honest with herself, she decided it really didn’t; not by itself.
But it was a good start and in that much, she was at least different from him and that was good enough for now. There would have to be more later, but that was later; for now she had made the right decision and she had to hold on to that small comfort.
Going back in, she returned to her workbench and looked at her list of things to do. Taking up a pen, she added a note at the top: 'keep an eye out for past victims.' She didn’t know if she could find them all, but she could try. And she could make sure that there weren’t any new ones – or at least not any that didn’t really deserve it.
She felt something at her heels. Her meowclops was nuzzling her leg again. Smiling, she bent down and scratched it behind the ears. It purred contentedly, then went back over at hopped back up onto the chair, satisfied that everything was back to normal.
In the quiet of her empty home, she thought of Talya again. Maybe she’d be visiting them sooner than she thought. She’d heard that Lutari Island was supposed to be wonderful this time of year. She looked back at her list. She had a lot to do in the days ahead. Still . . .
Humming to herself, she added another item at the bottom.
'Buy some new vacation clothes.'