The Conjuring Cauldron
"Have you finished your assignment, Mr. Vergar?” Mrs. Jesin said. She narrowed her eyes, closing in on him. Alex looked up.
“Still working on it,” Alex said. He switched tabs on his browser so she wouldn’t see his screen.
“Hmm.” Mrs. Jesin watched him closely before pestering the guy next to him. Every day she marched up and down the rows of computers in the library like a warden.
He wanted to stick his foot out and trip her.
Alex watched her walk away. Mrs. Jesin had a hand on the necklace she always wore, a jeweled rose. She loved her prize roses, and everyone knew it. Heat warmed the back of his neck thinking about those stupid flowers.
Ignoring the feeling, Alex turned back to the screen and typed, “The largest capital city in America is the underwater city of Atlantis.”
He clicked “publish changes,” and sighed. Wikipedia was his only distraction. The school blocked all the fun sites, and Mrs. Jesin made sure the other boys on the soccer team were dispersed across the library “to curb rowdiness.”
Alex had tabs open for his report on South American birds, but he had another way to pass the time; Edits.
He clicked “random article.” The page reloaded, showing the Wikipedia sidebar on the left, but a cartoon cauldron sat in the middle of the page, smoke curling from the opening. A witch stood over the cauldron, waving her gnarled hands over the concoction inside. A pointed black hat sat on her gray hair which was pulled into a bun. Alex leaned in and squinted at the witch. Her face was drawn into a mischievous grin. Something about the witch seemed eerily familiar. Alex studied Mrs. Jesin’s face, then glanced back at the screen. He shuddered. One Mrs. Jesin was bad enough.
The smoke curling from the cauldron spelled out “CLICK FOR ADVENTURE.”
Alex raised his eyebrows. It hadn’t said that before. He clicked.
The screen went black. The white outline of a cauldron appeared. Smoke rose from it and spelled out, “CONGRATULATIONS ON FINDING THE CONJURING CAULDRON.”
The Conjuring Cauldron? Huh. He’d never heard of it, but the graphics were amazing. It was mid-September, so maybe it was an early Halloween gimmick? Alex leaned in, wondering what would happen next.
The smoke drifted toward the top of the page, floating away as if into the air above. He thought he smelled it, but that couldn’t be possible. Alex clicked around, looking for a page or a button, but found nothing. He kept watching, wondering if the smoke would twist into something else or if another page would pop up.
Disappointed, he switched to his other tab and pulled up another random article.
“University Station serves as a transfer point for buses and dragons in the north and northeast suburbs of Buffalo.”
Alex chuckled. Dragons. If they were real, they wouldn’t ride the subway.
Mrs. Jesin walked by. Foul tempered, and obsessed with her treasured roses, she was a dragon herself.
She peered over his shoulder, but with his notebook flipped open, for all she knew, he was deep in research. Although he knew teachers frowned on using Wikipedia as a resource.
After all, anyone could change it.
Alex had found with celebrities and well-known events, the edits wouldn’t go through. Boring. Edits were just little white lies, what was the big deal? It was harmless fun, something to pass the time other than homework. Like his report on birds. Or algebra.
He really, really, really, didn’t want to work on algebra. A wave of guilt washed over him, thinking about the test last week. About sneaking into the teacher’s room after school, about taking the answers and hiding them in his notebook. About cheating.
He did not want to think about that. Or about what would happen if he got caught. Alex changed tabs, clicking to the cauldron one. The smoke read, “BORED AT SCHOOL?”
Weird. The website must be able to identify IP addresses. He wasn’t sure how to use the page, again, when he searched for something to click, he didn’t find any buttons. Frowning, Alex tried to refresh the page, but when it loaded, it showed the same thing. Not sure what else to do, he typed “Yes” and clicked enter.
The smoke changed, “WE CAN HELP!”
He typed in “how?”
The smoke disappeared, replaced with a list.
1 - STUDY HALL INTERRUPTION, BASIC
2 - SCHOOL DAY SHENANIGANS, NORMAL
3 - TOWN GOES WONKY, INTERMEDIATE
4 - WORLDWIDE MISCHIEF, ADVANCED.
Alex tried to click on them, but nothing worked, so he typed, “What’s the difference between basic and advanced?”
Smoke rose up over the list. “PRICE.”
Price huh? Alex was pretty sure the computer didn’t take crumpled five-dollar bills. Dang. He switched back to his edits.
“Henry Hart was an English member of Parliament that left caches of buried treasure all over the world.”
Mrs. Jesin circled again. “What are you working on Mr. Vergar?” She said, squinting at his screen.
“Just a report about South American birds,” Alex switched to one of the bird tabs.
“You know Wikipedia is not an acceptable place for you to get your research,” she said, her mouth pursing.
“Yes, just trying to get some preliminary research to point me in the right direction,” Alex said. Like he was actually going to research in books.
Mrs. Jesin moved on. Alex rolled his eyes. He clicked to the Conjuring Cauldron page.
The smoke had changed again, “SCHOOL SPECIAL SALE: TODAY ONLY!”
1 - BASIC PRICING, THE LAST LIE YOU TOLD YOUR MOTHER
2 - NORMAL PRICING, TWO OF YOUR FAVORITE DREAMS
3 - INTERMEDIATE PRICING, 1 UNTOLD SECRET
4 - ADVANCED PRICING, YOUR 2 WORST SECRETS
He looked to see if anyone was watching. Nope. Most of the other students were doing what he was doing. Staring glassy-eyed at the computer. Alex typed, “2 untold secrets for worldwide mischief?”
“LIMITED TIME ONLY,” the smoke spelled out. “SPECIAL SALE!”
This had to be a joke.
“Why so cheap?” He typed in.
“SECRETS ARE VALUABLE.”
Alex frowned. Telling two secrets to a stranger didn’t really affect him, did it?
He stared over the computer, eyeing his soccer buddies. Were they messing with him? What if he told his secrets and they told the whole school? Maybe he could start smaller. He typed in, “1.”
The screen went black, then the white outline of a cauldron appeared, Alex looking down into it. A bubbling green liquid sat inside. Navy lines in the liquid moved to spell out the words “#1 - STUDY HALL INTERRUPTION. PRICE - THE LAST LIE YOU TOLD YOUR MOTHER.”
He shifted in his seat. He lied to his mom a lot… probably more than he should. But she always harped on him! Like this morning, when she yelled down the hall to make sure he had washed his soccer uniform. He had replied in the affirmative, but it was crumpled in a dirty pile on the floor. He’d had to sneak it into the wash while she was in the shower, and that made him late for school.
Alex typed, “I told my mother I had washed my uniform, but I hadn’t.”
He hit enter.
The bubbling concoction turned from green to orange. Alex’s body tensed, waiting for something to happen. The seconds ticked by. He looked around. Everything seemed normal.
A screeching noise rang through the air. Everybody looked around, surprised. A flock of colorful birds shot in through the open door of the library, cawing and screeching.
Mrs. Jesin shrieked as the birds dove at her. A streak of white poop landed on her shoulder. Alex burst into laughter. Students covered their heads with backpacks and books, some ducking under tables, some standing to get a better look. Alex watched the chaos unfold. The principal rushed in, with the janitor behind him wielding a dry mop.
“Everybody stay calm!” The principal shouted. It was too late for that. Parrots flew around and macaws perched on light fixtures.
“Get the students out in the hall, we need to call animal control!” The principal said.
The janitor tried to herd the birds, shouting “Shoo, shoo,” and “let’s move little birdy!”
Tears of laughter streamed down Alex’s face. He wiped them with his shirt sleeve, then marveled at the red, yellow, and blue plumage on the macaw. Alex ripped his eyes from the birds and clicked over to the tabs he had open. Sure enough, the birds in the library were the ones he had been researching. But where had they come from?
He changed to the Conjuring Cauldron page.
“ARE YOU SATISFIED WITH YOUR PURCHASE? YES/NO?”
Alex typed “yes!” and hit enter. This couldn’t be a prank. Or if it was, it was too elaborate for his soccer team. A glance showed him that no one noticed he was still at the computer. Should he try another spell?
The screen went back to the pricing menu. Alex looked it over, but it had changed.
1 - BASIC PRICING, THE LAST LIE YOU TOLD YOUR FATHER
2 - NORMAL PRICING, THREE OF YOUR DREAMS
3 - INTERMEDIATE PRICING, 2 UNTOLD SECRETS
4 - ADVANCED PRICING, YOUR 3 WORST SECRETS
“The pricing changed?” he typed.
The smoke twisted, “WE TOLD YOU IT WAS NOW OR NEVER!”
The birds showed him the site worked. And what was the worst that could happen? Someone would know his secrets? But three of them got him worldwide mischief.
It was too tempting to resist.
“I’ll take number 4,” he said.
The screen changed so he was looking down into the cauldron again, but it was different, bigger somehow. The liquid inside was green again.
“#4 - WORLDWIDE MISCHIEF - PRICE - YOUR 3 WORST SECRETS.”
Alex’s fingers hovered over the keyboard. He had secrets. But typing them out suddenly made them seem… bigger.
The first thing to pop in his head was Isabel. His crush. He hadn’t told anyone, because, well, she was his best friend’s ex-girlfriend. And he couldn’t like her, shouldn’t like her. But he did. She was so funny and had those cute freckles. His heart pounded just thinking about her.
He typed, “I like-” but stopped.
Maybe the Conjuring Cauldron was right. Maybe secrets were more valuable than he realized.
But he didn’t have time to contemplate that. He looked up and saw most of the birds had settled, except one of the parrots which had gotten tangled in the string of the window blinds. Mrs. Jesin ran over, gently unwrapping the bird from its tether. Alex was surprised. He expected her to shy away from the sharp beak and long talons, instead, she cooed at the bird, carefully pulling the strings away. A wave of guilt washed over him.
He needed to focus. She was distracted, but any minute now the janitor or principal would realize he was there.
“I have a crush on Isabel Barrett,” he typed. Alex sucked in a breath and pressed enter. The liquid bubbling in the cauldron turned pink. So far so good. He tried not to think about the secret flying around cyberspace.
This was harder than he thought. The things he had done were secrets for a reason. He didn’t want to think about them, especially not the worst ones.
He looked up at Mrs. Jesin, who smiled at a macaw that had come down and perched on her shoulder. She looked less like the cartoon witch and more like a kindly old lady.
“I killed Mrs. Jesin’s roses,” he typed in.
A few months ago she’d given him detention, which caused him to miss soccer practice, which meant he couldn’t start in the game that week. He had been walking home, thinking about how unfair it was when he walked past her house. Her prized rose bushes bloomed red and pink, their sweet scent filling the air. Without thinking, he ran and stomped them, using his strongest soccer dropkicks to send the flowers flying. It felt good in the moment, but back on the sidewalk, he found he felt horrible.
The school made a big fuss about finding the culprit. Alex had walked around with a pit in his stomach for days. But they never caught him.
The liquid in the cauldron changed again, the frantic bubbles smoothing. The mixture began to swirl, its bright pink color deepening to a dark magenta. A strawberry-banana scent filled the air. He leaned in. The smell came from the computer speakers.
Alright. One more secret.
Two men entered the library with cages and nets, dressed in tan jumpsuits. Mrs. Jesin and the principal talked with them, the janitor nodding along, mop in hand. So far no one had looked at Alex.
He had another secret. The test that had been weighing him down since last week. Even worse than the roses. He’d get kicked off the soccer team if anyone found out.
“I cheated on my math test last week,” he typed.
Algebra. It was as if his teacher was explaining in a different language. He had no idea what was going on. And it showed. He had scraped by for a while, but everything hinged on that test. If he failed, his grades would drop too far and he wouldn’t be allowed to play.
Soccer was his life. So, he had asked for help after school and when his teacher left the classroom, he stole the answers.
The bubbling pink liquid boiled, white smoke filling the screen. The smoke leaked from the speakers and computer vents, rolling onto the desk.
He did it. Three secrets.
Alex let out a sigh and his shoulders relaxed. Something had shifted inside of him. He hadn’t been telling himself the truth about Isabel, but that wasn’t the worst of it. Just looking at Mrs. Jesin annoyed him, but because of his guilt.
And the test. He wanted to play on the team, but was cheating worth it? Every time he walked into the classroom since, he felt bad.
Alex stared at the screen, waiting for something to happen. Mrs. Jesin looked up and saw him. She frowned.
Shit. He was caught.
A teacher rushed into the room. “Turn on the news!” She shouted, her voice loud enough to be heard over the cacophony of birds. “Turn it on!”
Mrs. Jesin stopped walking toward Alex and clicked on the TV. Used only for morning announcements, Alex was surprised to see it had basic channels. The news switched on and Alex blinked, not sure what he was looking at.
A frantic reporter stood in front of a glistening city surrounded by a huge bubble. Inside the bubble something flew - no - swam. Alex squinted. Were those merpeople?
Mrs. Jesin pumped up the volume.
“This is Natalie Trestel reporting live, where a city has just emerged from the water off the coast of North Carolina. A sign hanging from the entrance to the gates, says ‘Atlantis.’ Could this be the lost city?”
A flash across the screen interrupted the broadcast. BREAKING NEWS! It said.
What could be more breaking than Atlantis?
The screen cut to a subway station. People streamed out of the doors, running from the building. Everyone except a reporter who pushed through the crowd toward the doors.
“It seems as though an unusual visitor has graced our presence here in Buffalo, New York,” The reporter said. He descended the station steps and stopped, motioning for the camera to come closer. Alex watched as the reporter peeked around the corner and then back at the camera, and whispered, “It looks like a dragon, yes, a DRAGON, is in the subway station.”
The cameraman moved so the camera looked down the platform and sure enough a large green dragon complete with folded wings and smoke coming from its nostrils was perched on the tile. The train pulled up and people streamed off casually until they saw it. Some ran, some gawked, and some pulled out their phones, but the dragon didn’t respond. It just clambered through the doors and onto the car.
“It looks like it’s boarding?” The reporter said, running toward the car. They got a shot of it as the doors closed and pulled away, the dragon sitting in the doorway and reading the subway map.
Alex gawked. He was long forgotten by Mrs. Jesin as she stared at the TV.
“Is this a joke?” the janitor asked. No one bothered with the birds.
Alex looked at the computer. The smoke-words had risen, “ARE YOU HAPPY WITH YOUR PURCHASE?”
He typed “YES!”
Classes had been forgotten, kids and teachers pouring through the halls, everyone distracted by what was on the news. Mrs. Jesin laughed as the merpeople filled the screen again. Alex had never seen her smile. Between the macaw that still sat on her shoulder and the wide grin on her face, Alex felt uncomfortable. He watched as she subconsciously put a hand to her necklace, the one she wore every day, the jeweled rose. Just like the ones he had destroyed.
Alex got detention because he lied about doing his homework. She had found out. He blamed her, but... if he’d turned his paper in on time, it wouldn’t have happened.
He clicked ‘create a page.’ The subject? Alex Vergar.
Alex shook his head as he stared at the screen. The Conjuring Cauldron had asked for his three worst secrets, and typing them in had made Alex realize how much keeping those secrets ate at him. And there was only one way for him to be free from them.
He needed to confess.
Not just to a website. But to the people he had wronged. Mrs. Jesin had always been an ogre of a teacher but seeing her facade crack forced him to see her in a different light.
The thing about lying to his mom wasn’t a big deal, but he could appreciate her more. And Isabel… He could always ask his friend if it was okay to take her out. The worst that could happen was he’d say no.
Then there was the test. They’d probably make him retake it, or do summer school. But he could do that. He had taken a risk trusting this weird website, and that had paid off, so maybe owning up was worth it.
Before he did though, Alex clicked ‘edit’ on his page.
“Alex Vergar confessed to his parents, even though his secrets were bad and he was ashamed. He got in trouble, but they were nice about it and everything worked out alright, and he’s still able to play on the soccer team.”
Yes. He would tell them. He would make it right. And hopefully, it wasn’t too painful.
A gasp went through the crowd in the library, students and teachers who had come in to watch the news. Alex looked up. The story was about a journal, that described caches of treasure hidden around the world, that hadn’t been found yet.
Oh right. Henry Hart.
Alex looked back down at his page. Well, if this thing still worked, what was the harm?
“Alex Vergar was also the first to find a cache of Henry Hart’s treasure, equaling a million dollars, making him the youngest to find a cache.”
That was reasonable, right? Only a million, he wasn’t going crazy. He clicked ‘publish changes.’
“Be careful!” The principal shouted. Alex looked up and saw that one of the parrots had landed on Mrs. Jesin’s head. Fear flashed across her face as the animal control men tried to coax it down. Then, Mrs. Jesin burst out laughing.
She wasn’t his favorite person, but she was just doing her job. Maybe if he studied in study hall, she wouldn’t be so hard on him.
But he knew of a way to make it up to her. For the roses.
Alex clicked ‘edit’ one more time, adding another sentence to his Wikipedia page. “Coincidentally, his study hall teacher, Mrs. Jesin, found a cache as well, the only two people from the same town to both discover one.”
“Hers was valued at $500,000.”
Hey, he wasn’t a saint.
He clicked ‘publish’ and closed the tab. The Conjuring Cauldron page bubbled up at him, but the pricing was gone. Instead, it displayed the words “THANK YOU - AND GOOD LUCK.”
Grinning, Alex stood up and walked out the door. Teachers tried to get everyone in line, but the halls were chaos. Alex ducked behind some football players and ran to his locker, grabbing his things, and, when no one was looking, slipped out the door. He needed to go talk to his mom and confess what he’d done. He’d receive his punishment. It was only fair. Then, he’d be free of secrets.
And after that, he needed to hunt for treasure.