Gertie and Bridget get the flu

Photo by David Mao on Unsplash

Bridget couldn’t stop sneezing. This was more of a problem for her than it was for most. When normal people got sick, they would feel achy and lethargic and need to miss school. When Bridget got sick, she had visions.
She didn’t get her usual visions, like glimpses of danger that could befall her, when she was phlegmy and sneezy. Instead, she saw what was for breakfast at the mess hall, what grades she would get on assignments she’d already turned in, or that she would run out of tea bags. The most helpful vision she ever got during a cold was that she’d trip over a stair. And then she did anyway.
At Gertie’s (and Bridget’s roommate’s) insistence, Bridget was staying over in Gertie’s private room, swathed in blankets and cared for by her sister.
Bridget sneezed and a vision flashed before her eye. Short homework in calculus today. She sneezed again. Her mom would call. A third sneeze. Her friend Vivien needed help in Algebra.
“Ugh!” Bridget blew her nose with a tissue from the box Gertie offered.
“I’m going to go to the healer’s office and get you some Quilamine,” Gertie told her.
“That stuff tastes gross,” Bridget protested.
“Yeah, well, watching you turn green from the stress the visions are putting on you is worse.” Gertie stood, bringing Bridget’s cell phone to her. “Call me if I should pick up anything else. If something goes wrong, Ernest is just down the hall so text him.”
Bridget waited for Gertie’s footsteps to recede down the hall. She pulled out Gertie’s laptop and put on an episode of some reality show that she could doze off to.
She sneezed again and saw the winner of the show. She closed the laptop.
A half an hour later, Bridget woke up to the beeping of Gertie’s microwave and the smell of orange, broccoli, and fish stewed together. She turned and saw Gertie sitting on her desk chair with a mug of green sludge.
“Drink,” Gertie said, holding out the potion.
Bridget groaned, but accepted the mug. She glanced at her sister. Gertie’s eyes were wide and she bit her bottom lip, as if she wanted to say something but didn’t know where to start.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost. Other than Ziggy,” Bridget said, trying to avoid having to sip the potion.
Their ghost dog, sitting vigilantly at the foot of Gertie’s bed, barked.
“I ran into Nick in the healer’s office,” Gertie said.
Bridget sat up, gulped down the hot potion, and put it to the side. It tasted worse than it smelled. Somehow, even with all their magic, healers couldn’t make stuff that was good for a person taste any better. But that wasn’t important right now. “Are you alright?” She reached forward to touch Gertie’s shoulder, subtly checking for injuries.
Gertie nodded. “He was actually…” she bit her lip hesitantly. “Polite?”
“What?” Bridget couldn’t believe that. Nick Coffer, polite? He hated magic practitioners, even if they’d never done anything to him.
“Yeah. He was sniffling a lot, looking for the Quilamine too. He asked about how my day was, said he hoped you felt better, and thanked me for showing him where the potion was!”
It sounded impossible.
“Maybe he hit his head when he went home over the weekend,” Bridget guessed. Her nose itched and she reached for the tissues. They were just three short sneezes this time, which meant the Quilamine was working, but the vision that flashed was confusing.
She saw Nick Coffer, in his dorm room with the blinds drawn. He was eating a long, purple leaf that he tore into strips and dipped in milk.
When Bridget came out of the vision, she blew her nose.
“Anything interesting?” Gertie asked.
“Yeah. What type of plant has big purple leaves?”
Gertie pulled her laptop over from where Bridget had stashed it. She went to a botany site from her bookmarks and did some searching.
“Did it look like this?” she asked, turning the computer around so Bridget could see.
Bridget glanced over the page on “purple lace”.
“Yeah. But it was dipped in milk.” Bridget typed in the search bar and froze when the results page came up. “No…”
Gertie turned the computer back around and gasped.
“Oh, no. That explains it.”
Purple lace leaves and milk are the primary diet of a Puddyworm. If someone you know is eating this, please contact the authorities immediately, as they have most likely been taken over.
“Do...do we tell anyone?” Gertie asked in a hushed tone.
“Gertie! Of course we do!” Bridget coughed and blew her nose.
“I’m just saying, he’s really nice now!” Gertie shrugged. “I mean, he probably wouldn’t give me another black eye.”
“Ugh.” Bridget got out of bed, putting on the winter coat she had used to walk to Gertie’s room despite the sunny weather. “Come on. If he’s so nice, let’s go talk to him and see if the Puddyworm’s willing to leave peacefully.”


~*~*~


“Oh, hey Gertie. Bridget, are you feeling better?” The Puddyworm-in-Nick sniffed, wiping his nose with a tissue. What seemed like phlegm dripping down his lip was actually just an effect of the Puddyworm’s presence in a human body, as Gertie and Bridget had learned after reading up on Puddyworms during their walk over.
“A little bit,” Bridget said. “We have a question for you.”
“Oh, well-”
“We know you’re a Puddyworm,” Gertie said.
Bridget put her head in her hand and sighed.
Nick’s expression became one they were much more familiar with, one of rage and promising pain. “Look, I don’t want to hurt you,” Nick said. “But I know this body can. And it has.”
Gertie winced.
“If you’re going to rat me out to the police-”
“We’re not going to,” Bridget said. “We were...hoping...you might leave willingly?”
Nick’s eyes narrowed. “Where else would I go?” The Puddyworm asked. “Do you see anyone willing to hand over their body?”
Gertie and Bridget shifted uncomfortably. No one was walking in the hall, but if anyone happened to hear, they could all be in trouble.
“It’s just never going to be easy again.” Nick huffed, talking more to himself than them. “They finally got my last host a CAT scan and figured out he was brain dead and that I was controlling him.”
“Brain dead?” Gertie repeated.
Nick waved his hand dismissively. “It’s the only way to get away with controlling someone for long periods of time anymore.” Nick’s expression softened, as did the Puddyworm’s tone. “And it seems nicer. To not have to take over a living person. I barely found this Nick in time.” The Puddyworm-in-Nick’s body scuffed his shoe at the carpet.
“Couldn’t you just...take over a mouse and leave?” Bridget asked.
The Puddyworm scoffed. “Some life that would be.” Then it grumbled. “Some life this is anyway. But I don’t want to die. There aren’t many of us left.”
“I...I have a theory,” Gertie said. She held up her phone, where she’d been reading up about Puddyworms during the walk. “We can test it before letting anyone else know this ever happened, if you’d like.”


~*~*~


“You’re lucky I had leftover clay,” Vivien told them. She was shaping the last leg and foot of a sculpture about a foot and a half high that looked like a little human.
Bobby, the bird that she had brought to life, peeped in agreement.
When Vivien had first made him, Bobby had been an Animated drawing of a blue jay, but she had soon realized that took too much energy for her to keep up, as Animated creations drew their spirit energy from their creators. So, she took the next logical step and made a homunculus - or a bird version of one.
Vivien had brewed a very special clay with the help of Gertie and Mr. Jerson, the potions teacher. She had shaped it into a bird, added some real blue jay feathers for suggestion, and cast a spell to take the spirit of the Animated Bobby and connect it to the magical clay.
Now Bobby was his own being, and Vivien was free to try other magical pursuits.
The goal was to do the same thing with the Puddyworm.
“Ok, I’m done,” Vivien said, stepping back. She was quite an artist, and the little human looked perfectly proportioned, if only the size of a large doll.
“It’s rather plain,” the Puddyworm-in-Nick said skeptically. “And small.”
“It’ll grow. It would just take too much clay to make a full sized body.” Vivien explained. “And once you’re inside it, it will change according to your spirit. Bobby only had a handful of feathers when I first made his body. Now look at him.”
Bobby preened, his feather-covered body appearing to change colors in the sunlight from the studio’s windows.
“I guess it’ll work out,” the Puddyworm said, rubbing the back of Nick’s neck.
“So,” Bridget asked, taking a sip from her travel mug of Quilamine. “We’re sure this is legal, right?”
“We’re sure it’s not illegal,” Gertie responded. “It’s only illegal to create a new human spirit for a homunculus. We’re not doing that.”
“Still, Mr. Jerson and Mrs. Ragward wanted to be left out of it,” Vivien said. She sat on the table next to her little sculpture.
“They’re just being cautious,” Gertie argued. “This has never been done before.”
“You think it would have been,” Vivien said.
“Except that in the Puddyworm’s native country - you know, here - all magical beasts were hunted into near extinction years ago,” Bridget said, sniffling and wiping her nose on her sleeve. “Especially ones that targeted humans.”
The Puddyworm-in-Nick cleared its throat.
“Sorry, uh.” Bridget struggled for a moment. “What should we call you? You’re not Nick.”
“You’re going to need a name,” Gertie said, sitting up excitedly. “When you have your own body. What do you think?”
“I...I don’t know,” the Puddyworm-in-Nick shrugged. “How do people normally choose a name?”
“Well, are you a boy or a girl or somewhere in between?” Vivien asked. “Or neither?”
The Puddyworm frowned. “I’m not sure.”
“Maybe pick one where it doesn’t matter?” Bridget suggested.
“What about Madison?” The Puddyworm asked, and then blushed. “I just...I’ve been Madison lots of times. Boys and girls and both. I really like that name.”
“Madison then,” Gertie said. She held out her hand. “Nice to meet you.”
Madison-in-Nick laughed, a strange sound coming from the bully’s body, and held out Nick’s hand to shake hers.
“Ok, enough goofing off,” Vivien said, hopping off the table. The homunculus body had to age in its shape for twenty-four hours before something could be bound to it. “Let’s go get what we need.”


~*~*~*~


Mrs. Ragward handed over a piece of paper she had been scribbling on as soon as they entered the classroom. “I had to make some modifications to your idea,” she said.
Gertie took the page she had torn out of her notebook and her expression fell at the amount of scribbles and cross outs. She hadn’t had Mrs. Ragward as a teacher yet, but by the look of it she would be a hard grader.
“It had good bones,” the spellcasting teacher added kindly. “You just don’t know...anything about inventing spells.”
“Yeah, no kidding.” Gertie folded the paper and put it in her pocket. She and Madison-in-Nick turned to leave.
“There’s just one more thing?” Mrs. Ragward came out from around her desk to stare down at the teenagers. “If this doesn’t work...there’s a very strong possibility that your friend won’t survive.”
“The spellcaster or the spellcast-ee?” Gertie clarified, trying to make a joke.
Mrs. Ragward glared down at her and grabbed a sculpture of a tree from her desk. The base was a large crystal, the trunk was made from twisted wire, and the leaves of delicate gold.
“This is a sculpture that holds an extraordinary amount of magical power,” she said. “I’m loaning it to you now, to make sure that whoever is casting this spell does survive. But I expect it back. Are we clear?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Gertie said with a gulp, accepting the tree that the teacher placed in her hands.
“Now.” Mrs. Ragward put her hands on Madison-in-Nick’s shoulders. “This is a very big risk you’re taking.”
“It’s worth it,” Madison said, jutting out Nick’s jaw. “If it does work, it could change the life of every surviving Puddyworm out there. If it doesn’t, then what kind of life will I even live anyway?”
Mrs. Ragward patted the side of Nick’s shoulder. “Good luck,” she said with a smile. “If it doesn’t work I’ll deny this ever happened.”
“And if it works?” Madison challenged.
“Then I’ll write the report and the patent and list you all as co-authors.”


~*~*~*~


“We got some doll clothes,” Vivien said, handing over a small t-shirt, jeans, socks and shoes that were dusty and flat and looked like they had been pulled out of some old box. “For afterwards. And I talked to Mr. Jerson about any potion that could help bind the two together. He suggested coating the chamber in lunas oil so Bridget let me into your room and I borrowed some of your buds and put them through his oil extractor, I hope that’s ok.”
“Viv, it’s fine,” Gertie said, putting a hand on her knee and holding out a candy bar. “Have some chocolate, take a breath.”
Vivien broke off a piece of the candy bar, all but shaking with nerves. Whenever she had tried experiments before, no one was being put at risk but herself.
“It’s going to be alright,” Madison said, although they had no evidence this was going to be the case.
Bridget nodded. “We can’t even get started until tomorrow,” she said, her voice thick with phlegm. She blew her nose with a tissue.
Some other students walked by in the lunchroom, and stopped cold when they saw Nick Coffer sitting with the freaky magic kids.
“If there’s one good outcome from all of this, it’s that everyone must be so confused at seeing Nick with us,” Bridget said, waving at the students.
“He’ll tell them, when I’m gone,” Madison said.
Bridget shrugged.
Vivien wasn’t listening, staring out into the distance and imagining all the ways this could go wrong.
“Come on.” Gertie stood up and pulled Vivien’s arm with her. “I’m starving, and you need to eat something.”
“Can we go into the city?” Madison asked. “I love going to Spacer Park and watching all the street performers.”
“Sounds like a great night,” Gertie said.
Nobody said it, but everyone was thinking that it might be Madison’s last.
~*~*~


The group of four stood in the art studio, the homunculus body standing before them. Vivien had hollowed out a space in its chest, and brushed on the oil. It was ready and waiting for Madison.
“All right.” Nick’s body took a deep breath. “Do I come out now?”
Gertie nodded. She held her hand out, and the Puddyworm oozed out of Nick’s nose. It was about the size of a small banana and the color of pond scum with some gray splotches. Its body was exceptionally squishy, covered in sludge that looked like mucus. It had tendrils poking out from its back that would normally be used to magically connect to and control the host, which it now sucked back into its body.
The girls only had a few moments. Puddyworms needed hosts because, left out in the open, they would soon dry out, crack, and die. They were incredibly vulnerable. The Puddyworm couldn’t talk of its own accord, or eat, or even move very quickly. It couldn’t smell or hear or even taste, it could only feel a pull toward nearby life. This normally helped it find its next host, so that it could take it over for survival.
Instead, Gertie shoved it into the cavity in the clay body. Viv covered it over with the clay she had dug out, and put one of her hands on the body’s shoulder. Her other hand clutched the tree, trying not to shake.
Vivien took one last look at the spell Gertie had given her and inhaled deeply.
Speaking in a magical language and drawing from Mrs. Ragward’s tree for extra power, she cast the spell that would bind the homunculus and Madison together.
There was a flash of light, and Vivien collapsed. Gertie caught her and reached up to stop the tree from toppling over.
“I-I’m ok,” Vivien said, letting Gertie help her onto one of the art studio’s stools.
They all held their breaths, staring at the homunculus, hoping for a sign of life.
And it opened its eyes. They were a dark, earthy brown with flecks of honey. Vivien couldn’t have designed the color if she had tried.
“Interesting,” Madison said, their voice smooth, a bit higher pitched than Nick’s had been. “It works just like a human’s body. But it doesn’t have any of the host’s thoughts.”
“That’s because there is no host, there’s just you,” Gertie said, and held up the doll clothes. “Now put these on.”
Madison continued to be fascinated with their own movements as they dressed.
Standing to the side, all but forgotten, Nick slowly blinked, as if waking up from a horrible nightmare that he wasn’t sure he was free of yet. The last thing he remembered doing was hugging his grandfather goodbye, after being told the fall had left him brain dead, and then…
Nick was seized with panic as he looked around. It hadn’t been a nightmare. He had been watching the whole time, unable to control himself. Wanting to beg the doctors for help. Wanting to tell the teachers that he wasn’t well. Even when he had seen Gertie in the healer’s office he wanted to shout and scream at her that he would never be there of his own accord.
He glared at Gertie and Bridget and they realized he was in control of his body again.
“Y...You…” He couldn’t get the words out. He hated everything they stood for and everything they were doing. But they had saved him?
“Just go, Coffer,” Gertie said, taking pity on him. “You can pretend none of this ever happened, and that you don’t owe us your life.”
Nick nodded, the only respectful sign he had ever given them of his own free will. Then he turned and bolted.
“So,” Bridget said, addressing Madison, “What now?”
“Well.” The Puddyworm-in-the-homunculus sat on the table and swung their legs absentmindedly. “I was thinking I would try to learn how to make that clay. And make a whole lot of homunculi. And then maybe all of us Puddyworms can come out of hiding and live actual lives.”
“That sounds-” Suddenly, Gertie sneezed four times. Bridget held out her mug of Quilamine with a smug smile.
Gertie accepted it with a groan. “Great.”

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